House, Democrat-Led States Ask Supreme Court to Review Obamacare Ruling

January 4, 2020 Updated: January 5, 2020
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The U.S. House of Representatives and a group of Democrat-led states are seeking an expeditious review at the Supreme Court of a lawsuit challenging former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

In two separate appeals filed on Jan. 3, lawmakers and state officials asked the high court to take up the case and issue a ruling before its current term ends in June. They argued that the court’s expeditious consideration is necessary because of the uncertainty the lower court’s decision has on health insurance and the health care marketplace, as well as for millions of Americans who have purchased health insurance under Obamacare (pdf).

In December, judges at the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled 2–1 that a key aspect of Obamacare was unconstitutional. The judges in the majority said a provision in the law, referred to as the “individual mandate,” which required people to obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty, was invalid after Congress removed the tax penalty in 2017, rendering the law unenforceable.

Following Congress’s amendment, a group of states and two private individuals filed a lawsuit claiming that the provision was no longer constitutional and that the whole Affordable Care Act needed to be invalidated because the provision was inseverable from the rest of the law.

A district court judge in Texas found in favor of the plaintiffs, prompting an appeal to the appeals court. The appeals court upheld the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims and sent the case back to the district court for a further review of the question of severability.

“The individual mandate is unconstitutional because it can no longer be read as a tax, and there is no other constitutional provision that justifies this exercise of congressional power,” Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, appointed by former President George W. Bush, wrote in the majority opinion (pdf).

“On the severability question, we remand to the district court to provide additional analysis of the provisions of the ACA as they currently exist,” the judge added.

Elrod said in her opinion that regardless of the result of the lower court’s review on the issue of severability, “it is no small thing for unelected, life-tenured judges to declare duly enacted legislation passed by the elected representatives of the American people unconstitutional.”

“The rule of law demands a careful, precise explanation of whether the provisions of the ACA are affected by the unconstitutionality of the individual mandate as it exists today,” she wrote.

The House and Democrat-led states have asked the Supreme Court to overrule the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court’s decision, saying in one of the petitions (pdf) to the top court that the lower court’s ruling has “cast doubt on the validity of the entire ACA, arguably the most consequential package of legislative reforms of this century.”

“That uncertainty threatens adverse consequences for patients, providers, and insurers nationwide,” the state officials wrote.

It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court will take up the case this year, given its busy docket. This term, the high court is expected to rule on several hot-button issues, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, guns, abortion, and subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records.

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