Monday, November 26, 2012
The Supreme Court today reopened one of the cases challenging the federal Affordable Care Act and sent it back for further proceedings at the Fourth Circuit. The move means that the lower court, and possibly the Supreme Court, will have another crack at certain issues that the Supreme Court dodged this summer in its ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius.
Recall that the Fourth Circuit rejected a challenge to the ACA by several individuals and Liberty University in September 2011, holding that the Anti-Injunction Act barred the claim. The Supreme Court declined to review that case, Liberty University v. Geithner. But today the Court reopened the case, vacated the Fourth Circuit ruling, and sent the case back for further proceedings in light of the Court's ruling in NFIB.
The plaintiffs in the case originally challenged the universal coverage provision (the so-called "individual mandate," requiring individuals to acquire health insurance or to pay a tax penalty) and the employer mandate (requiring employers with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance coverage for their employees), arguing that they exceeded Congress's taxing and commerce powers and violated the Tenth Amendment, Article I, Section 9's prohibition against unapportioned capitation or direct taxes (the Direct Tax Clause), and the Religion Clauses and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (among others). (As to the Religion Clauses, the plaintiffs argued that the requirements would cause them to support insurance companies that paid for abortions, a practice that they claimed ran against their religions.)
The district court ruled against the plaintiffs on all counts and dismissed the case. The Fourth Circuit dismissed the case under the AIA and didn't reach the merits.
The Supreme Court ruled in NFIB that the AIA did not bar the Court from ruling on the tax question, that Congress validly enacted the universal coverage provision under its Article I, Section 8 power "to lay and collect Taxes," and that it didn't violate the Direct Tax Clause. Thus after NFIB these issues appear to remain open on remand:
- Whether the mandates violate the Religion Clauses or the RFRA;
- Whether the employer mandate violates the taxing authority or the Direct Tax Clause;
- Whether the mandates violate equal protection;
- Whether the mandate violates free speech and associational rights.
As to the Religion Clauses, the district court ruled that the ACA's religious exemptions to universal coverage were permissible accommodations (and thus didn't violate the Establishment Clause) and that the ACA didn't require the plaintiffs to pay for abortions (and thus didn't violate the Free Exercise Clause or the RFRA).
As to the employer mandate: It's hard to see how the Supreme Court's tax analysis of the individual mandate in NFIB wouldn't apply with equal force to the employer mandate.
If the district court was right on the First Amendment and equal protection claims (as it seems), and if the Supreme Court's tax analysis applies with equal force to the employer mandate, this case doesn't seem to have much of a future.
But then again, that's what many of us said about NFIB.