BECERRA’S PICK as the HHS nominee surprised even some of Biden’s advisers.
Officials at medical associations had urged the president-elect to tap a physician for the post, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Becerra isn’t a doctor, and though he’s litigated to defend the Affordable Care Act, he doesn’t have direct experience in healthcare.
He served 12 terms in Congress before taking over as the top justice official in his home state of California when Vice President–elect Kamala Harris left the post to take a Senate seat in 2017.
Becerra also took over a notable case from Harris: the claims against pro-life activist David Daleiden for his undercover investigation exposing Planned Parenthood’s sale of aborted baby parts. Harris’ office greenlighted the raid on Daleiden’s apartment. Becerra filed 15 felony charges against him.
Even the Los Angeles Times opined in 2017 the charges were “disturbingly aggressive.” The paper noted Becerra’s office hadn’t filed similar charges against animal rights groups for making secret recordings during undercover investigations that drew praise for exposing animal cruelty.
Daleiden’s case is one example in a litany of pro-abortion battles Becerra has waged as attorney general that offer a glimpse of how he might use an even more powerful federal post at HHS.
Last April, Becerra led a coalition of 22 state attorneys general in challenging a Mississippi law prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks. Becerra called the ban “unjust, unlawful, and unfair.”
In 2018, Becerra defended the California FACT Act, a law requiring pregnancy care centers to post information telling expectant mothers how to obtain abortions. Pro-life advocates said the measure violated their rights to free speech. Becerra argued for a “professional speech” category that the state could regulate.
The Supreme Court ruled against the measure in 2018, with Justice Anthony Kennedy chiding California lawmakers for claiming the requirement was “forward-thinking.”
Kennedy warned that history shows “how relentless authoritarian regimes are in their attempts to stifle free speech.”
In 2017, Becerra filed suit to strip conscience protections from Little Sisters of the Poor—a Catholic group providing nursing home services to low-income elderly residents.
In a protracted legal battle, the nuns had sought a religious exemption from federal requirements to provide contraceptives and abortifacients in healthcare plans for employees. Under the Trump administration, officials at HHS issued a rule granting protection for the Little Sisters and religious nonprofits. Becerra and others sued to strike down the exemption.
Becerra’s record raises significant questions about how he’d drive one of the most powerful agencies in the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Little Sisters of the Poor in 2020, but Becerra would have the power to rescind conscience protections at HHS and send the nuns back to court.
Kim Colby of the Christian Legal Society thinks the Little Sisters likely would prevail in future court cases because of protections provided in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). But she says rescinding the conscience rule “just creates more litigation for religious groups trying to do good things.”
Colby noted Biden reportedly had argued during the Obama administration to offer protections for the Catholic group: “The question is … has he abandoned those instincts in order to become president?”
Whether Biden has abandoned his instincts, he’s made clear he’d peel back at least some conscience protections. After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters last summer, Biden said he was “disappointed” and promised, “If I am elected, I will restore the Obama-Biden policy that existed before the Hobby Lobby ruling: providing an exemption for houses of worship and an accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious missions.”
The Little Sisters say that won’t work. The “accommodation” means the group may use a third party to facilitate contraceptives and abortifacients for employees, but the nuns say that still violates their religious convictions.
Another rule at HHS on the chopping block: restrictions on Title X funding. The Trump administration decided any group or organization that refers women for abortions is ineligible for Title X family planning funds. Biden called the rule “a direct attack on Planned Parenthood” and promised, “It’s wrong, and as president I will reverse it.”
Becerra’s role at HHS would be key to Biden’s plans and highlights the agency’s sweeping power. HHS oversees issues related to Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), some adoption and foster care agencies, and other areas of governance.
Activist organizations have big ambitions for many of them.