Obamacare May Survive GOP Challenge At Supreme Court As Key Justices Signal Support

Chief Justice John Roberts said during oral arguments that it’s “not our job” to strike down the Obama-era health measure, after Congress wouldn’t.

Dr. Julia Skapik, of Washington, D.C., holds a sign that reads “ACA NOT ACB” during a protest organized by SPACEs In Action at the U.S. Supreme Court demanding the Court preserve the Affordable Care Act in Washington, D.C., on November 10, 2020 | Reuters
Dr. Julia Skapik, of Washington, D.C., holds a sign that reads “ACA NOT ACB” during a protest organized by SPACEs In Action at the U.S. Supreme Court demanding the Court preserve the Affordable Care Act in Washington, D.C., on November 10, 2020 | Reuters

The future of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is once again in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, this time during a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

The nation’s highest Court began hearing oral arguments Tuesday for the case against Obamacare called California v. Texas, led by Republican states and backed by the Trump administration. The latest GOP challenge to the law comes after the Court’s conservative majority was strengthened to 6-3 with the lightning-fast confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett this fall, following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

But several of its conservative justices during arguments appeared to express an unwillingness to strike down the massive health measure that former President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. 

If the Court decided in favor of the plaintiffs looking to strike down Obamacare, tens of millions of Americans could lose their health insurance. Other key aspects of the law include guaranteeing coverage for people who live with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults under the age of 26 to stay on their parents’ plans.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who cast a key vote in 2012 to uphold Obamacare, acknowledged Tuesday that some Republican lawmakers may have wanted the Court to strike down the law when Congress wouldn’t, but that doing so is "not our job."

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who President Trump appointed to the Court in 2018, also suggested that the justices may strike down the certain Obamacare provision that plaintiffs are challenging, known as the individual mandate, while keeping the rest of the law intact. The individual mandate, long a controversial piece of the law, can subject people who don’t have health insurance to a fee.

While speaking to Donald Verrilli, a former solicitor general under Obama, during the arguments, Kavanaugh said, “I tend to agree with you that this is a very straightforward case,” and that under the court’s precedents, “we would excise the mandate and leave the rest of the act in place.”

In February 2018, Republican Attorneys General from 20 states filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas claiming the ACA was unconstitutional. After record Democratic victories in the 2018 midterm elections, AGs from two states, Wisconsin and Maine, withdrew from the suit; they recently joined the side to defend Obamacare.

In December 2018, Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court in Fort Worth, Texas, ruled that the ACA individual mandate “can no longer be sustained as an exercise of Congress’s tax power” and that the act’s remaining portions are also void. The Justice Department then said in a 2019 filing with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the judge's ruling should be affirmed, and the entire law invalidated. But another 17 states, led by California’s Democratic Attorney General, intervened to defend the law, as did the Democrat-controlled House.

According to a New York Times report, the Supreme Court agreed to consider three legal questions in the case: whether Texas and two individual plaintiffs who joined the suit have standing, whether Congress rendered the individual mandate unconstitutional in 2017, and if so, whether the rest of the law must also be voided.

During the two previous challenges to Obamacare in 2012 and 2015, the Court left the law largely intact. But Barrett, prior to being appointed to the Supreme Court, wrote critically of Roberts’ reasoning in the 2012 case that ultimately protected the law. Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated Barrett during her confirmation hearings in October on whether she would strike down Obamacare, to which she responded that she was "not hostile" to the law.

According to estimates from the Urban Institute, more than 20 million people would be uninsured by 2020 if the law is overturned — which is a 69 percent increase nationally.

President-elect Joe Biden, the former vice president under Obama, has criticized the GOP’s renewed attacks on the health care law, especially during a pandemic that has left more than 230,000 people in the U.S. dead.

Many health insurers have also implored the Court to leave the law intact.

“Make no mistake: Invalidation of the A.C.A. would wreak havoc on the entire health care system,” trade association, America’s Health Insurance Plans wrote in a supporting brief.