U.S. Supreme Court rejects Republican challenge to Obamacare law

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington
FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. May 17, 2021.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a Republican bid that had been backed by former President Donald Trump’s administration to invalidate the Obamacare healthcare law, ruling that Texas and other challengers had no legal standing to file their lawsuit.

The 7-2 ruling authored by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer did not decide broader legal questions raised in the case about whether a key provision in the law, which is formally called the Affordable Care Act, was unconstitutional and, if so, whether the rest of the statute should be struck down.

The provision, called the “individual mandate,” originally required Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a financial penalty.

It marked the third time the court has preserved Obamacare since its 2010 enactment.

“The Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land and will continue to provide millions of Americans with healthcare,” said Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for Vice President Kamala Harris. “Today is a good day.”

Breyer wrote that none of the challengers, including Texas and 17 other states and individual plaintiffs, could trace a legal injury to the individual mandate.

President Joe Biden’s administration in February urged the Supreme Court to uphold Obamacare, reversing the position taken by the government under Trump, who left office in January.

After Texas and other states sued, a coalition of 20 states including Democratic-governed California and New York and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives intervened in the case to try to preserve Obamacare after Trump refused to defend the law.

“For more than a decade, the Affordable Care Act has been the law of the land, providing health coverage and a multitude of protections to tens of millions of Americans across the nation, and today’s decision solidifies those protections for generations to come,” New York Attorney General James said.

The two dissenting justices were conservatives Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee whose confirmation hearing last fall included many questions from Democrats over whether she would vote to strike the law down, was in the majority in the ruling.

Republicans fiercely opposed Obamacare when it was proposed, failed to repeal it when they controlled both chambers of Congress and have been unsuccessful in getting courts to invalidate the law, which was Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. The Trump administration did take steps to hobble the law.

The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority bolstered by the October confirmation in a Republican-led Senate of Trump’s third appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, but the Republican Obamacare challengers still came away disappointed. The Supreme Court in 2012 and 2015 also fended off previous Republican challenges to Obamacare.

Biden has pledged to expand healthcare access and buttress Obamacare. Biden and other Democrats had criticized Republican efforts to strike down the law at a time when the United States was grappling with a deadly coronavirus pandemic.

If Obamacare had been struck down, up to 20 million Americans stood to lose their medical insurance and insurers could have once again refused to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions. Obamacare expanded the Medicaid state-federal healthcare program and created marketplaces for private insurance.

In 2017, Trump signed a Republican-backed tax law that eliminated the financial penalty under the individual mandate, which gave rise to the Republican lawsuit. The tax law meant the individual mandate could no longer be interpreted as a tax provision and was therefore unlawful, the Republican challengers argued.

The Supreme previously upheld Obamacare by deeming the financial penalty under the individual mandate a tax permissible under the Constitution’s language empowering Congress to levy taxes.

The impetus for the Supreme Court case was a 2018 ruling by a federal judge in Texas that Obamacare as structured following the 2017 change violated the U.S. Constitution and was invalid in its entirety. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the individual mandate was unconstitutional but did not rule that the entire law should be stricken.

Biden’s administration notified the court of the government’s new position in February in a letter filed by Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler. The Biden administration believes that the individual mandate was constitutional and, even if it was not, the rest of the law should remain in place, Kneedler wrote.