The Supreme Court’s decision this morning, blocking the latest effort by conservative politicians and lawyers to end “Obamacare” (the Affordable Care Act), had two quite specific meanings. First, the massive health insurance law remains intact today. But, second, the constitutional battle over its long-term survival will go on, and the ultimate outcome is far from certain today.
The reaction by Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, was too optimistic and, indeed, was factually wrong. He declared on the floor of the Senate: “The Affordable Care Act has won. The Supreme Court has just ruled: the ACA is here to stay.”
In fact, that was not what the Court had ruled in the 7-to-2 decision. This was the only conclusion reached by the majority: the state of Texas plus 17 other states and two Texas individuals did not have a legal right to file their constitutional challenge, so it must now be dismissed.
That outcome was based on a principle going back to the Constitution’s 18th Century origins: the federal courts may not rule on any issue other than a genuine “case or controversy.” The challengers’ claim did not meet that minimum requirement, the majority decided, so it cannot go forward.
There was no decision that the challenge had been wrong, there was no ruling, pro or con, on any of the constitutional issues on the ACA’s validity, and there was nothing in it to suggest that no other challenge could be pursued hereafter. In reality, the dissenting opinion offered by two Justices actually reads very much like a detailed legal memo on how to renew the challenge; that opinion suggests in its footnote 9: “Our Affordable Care Act epic may go on.”
A new challenge is all but certain. Within hours after the Court released the 57 pages of opinions, Texas’ state attorney general, Ken Paxton, who had led the latest challenge, publicly declared: “I will continue to fight this law – in fact, I have only just begun.”
For the moment, it was clear that the ACA had survived its third serious constitutional challenge. Republican leaders have been trying, since the law was enacted in March 2010, to destroy it. The first assault on its constitutionality failed in the Court in 2012, and the second failed there in 2015. In addition, Congress has cast votes on repeal proposals at least 60 times over the years, but none ever passed both houses, essentially leaving the fate of the law to the courts.
The questions that the Court had agreed to consider in the third and latest challenge were these: first, is the mandate that requires almost every American (except the poor) to have adequate health coverage unconstitutional, and, second, if that specific provision is invalid, is that mandate so linked to the remainder of the law that all of it must fall, too?
The Court answered neither. Instead, it began and ended its review of this challenge at this question: did the challengers have “standing” to sue in the first place? “Standing” is always an issue at the outset of any federal court case, because the Constitution limits those courts’ power to deciding live legal issues only; in other words, the federal courts including the Supreme Court cannot give legal advice or write advisory opinion; they are limited to deciding actual legal disputes between two real combatants.
The Court has interpreted this “case or controversy” requirement to mean that a lawsuit may go forward in a federal court only if (1) the person or entity filing the lawsuit has actually experienced a legal injury, (2) that injury can be traced to specific action by the government or someone else engaging in unlawful action, and (3) there must be a realistic remedy that the courts are capable of imposing at the end of the case. All 3 tests must be met.
Just as the very first ACA case decided by the Court in 2012 had focused on the law’s central feature, so did the case decided today – that is, the individual mandate to buy health insurance coverage. The majority turned aside the constitutional challenge, focusing on the second requirement under the “case or controversy” rubric. That is, if the states and individuals were harmed by the individual mandate, can their injury be traced to the government’s enforcement of that mandate?
The majority found that the challengers could not make that link. Because Congress in 2017 had reduced the penalty to zero, for those who failed to obtain health insurance, the penalty can no longer be enforced, so nobody could be injured by it, seven Justices agreed.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett M. Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas. (Thomas also wrote a short separate opinion for himself, mainly devoted to countering the main thrust of the dissenting opinion.)
Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. (At 32 pages, it was exactly twice as long as Breyer’s 16 pages for the majority.)
In summary, the dissenters would have found that the challengers were entitled to bring their lawsuit, that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, and that the mandate is so intertwined with all of the remainder of the ACA that the whole thing should be struck down.
But the part of that opinion that is likely to reverberate, and likely to be picked up as a guide to one or more new challenges, went into considerable detail to explain how the challenging states and individuals were harmed not only by the mandate-to-buy-insurance but by a wide variety of other provisions of the huge law.
The core difference between the majority and the dissenters was quite simple, even though both opinions were written in heavy legal prose.
Breyer focused on the fact that the challengers had sued to block only the individual mandate, and then tried to bootstrap that claim into a challenge to the entire law. But, Breyer wrote, the challenge failed at the outset for lack of “standing” because the mandate cannot be enforced since there is now no penalty, and thus no harm can be traced to the government.
Alito, by contrast, argued that the challengers should be understood as having “standing” to sue because they complained that the harm they experienced came from a wide variety of ACA provisions, and then having shown that those harms flowed from the linkage of the individual mandate to all of the law’s other provisions.
In essence, the dissent provides a blueprint for how challengers can reframe their challenge, and start over, hoping that it might draw away some of the Justices who had voted with Breyer on the narrower approach to the dispute; Justice Thomas, for example, seemed tempted by Alito’s reasoning, although he ultimately refused to embrace it in this instance.