Supreme Court to Once Again Weigh Constitutionality of Affordable Care Act

By Mark Walsh — March 02, 2020 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up a lawsuit that threatens the Affordable Care Act, the comprehensive Obama-era health care law whose effects have been felt in education as well as the rest of society.

When an ACA-related question was before the justices in 2015, the case drew friend-of-the-court briefs from the National Education Association in support of the law and one opposing the law from a group of Indiana school districts that had a pending challenge over the law’s employer mandate, which requires employers with 50 or more workers to provide minimum essential health coverage to anyone working at least 30 hours per week.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the new case would likely be immensely significant. The court could either save the law for a third time from a conservative legal challenge, or allow a legal theory to go forward that threatens the entire 2010 law, a signature achievement of President Barack Obama.

“This is a ‘which side are you on?’ moment,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Because the White House was unsuccessful in its attempt to repeal the ACA in Congress, it will use any means to destroy our country’s prevailing healthcare law.”

The case involves a lawsuit brought by Texas and 17 other states that challenges the ACA after Congress in 2017 eliminated any financial penalty under the law’s individual health-insurance mandate. A federal district court ruled for those states, holding that the entire law was unconstitutional because the individual mandate was no longer sustainable under the tax-power theory that the Supreme Court had relied on in its 2012 decision in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius.

While an appeal was pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, President Donald Trump’s administration announced that it would no longer defend the law. California and 19 other states plus the District of Columbia stepped in to defend the law’s constitutionality.

The 5th Circuit court last year struck down the individual mandate but said the trial court should re-examine whether the rest of the ACA could be severed from the mandate and saved.

California and the other defenders of the health law appealed that ruling to the high court, initially urging the justices to take up the case this term. When the court declined to do so, some observers thought the case would drift away as a political issue during the 2020 presidential campaign.

But it appears the court merely wanted to make sure the case would be heard and decided during the next term, which begins in October. The court granted review in California v. Texas (Case No. 19-840), which asks whether Texas and its allies have legal standing to file their suit and whether the individual mandate may be severed and the rest of the ACA saved.

The ACA “has transformed our nation’s health-care system” and “states, health insurers, and millions of Americans rely on [its] provisions when making important—indeed, life-changing—decisions,” California and the other defending states said in a brief.

While Texas argued that the Supreme Court should let the case go back to a federal district court, it said in a cross-petition that if the justices took up the California appeal, they should also decide whether the ACA would be invalid and unenforceable without the individual mandate.

The court also granted review in the cross-petition, Texas v. California (No. 19-1019).

In the 2015 case, King v. Burwell, involving health-insurance subsidies under the ACA, the NEA filed a brief that its lower-income members, including bus drivers, janitors, and cafeteria workers, were benefiting “immensely from the ACA’s integrated scheme for expanding affordable coverage.”

Meanwhile, a group of 39 school districts in Indiana, as well as the state of Indiana, had brought a novel challenge to the ACA arguing that its employer mandate either imposed an unconstitutional tax or violated the state’s 10th Amendment immunity. A federal district court rejected the claims in 2018.

Arguments in the new case will be scheduled sometime in the term that begins Oct. 5. While the court has room in its October argument schedule, it is not clear whether the justices would push the arguments back past Election Day on Nov. 3. In either case, a decision is not expected until sometime in 2021.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.