Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Justice Kennedy and the Hobby Lobby Contraceptive Mandate Oral Arguments: Is it Simply Administrative Law?

The arguments in the consolidated cases of  Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialities v. Sebelius displayed Justices sharply divided on the issues as we discussed.  Whether Justice Kennedy will be the deciding vote in the cases is sure to be the subject of much speculation.  What, if anything, might be derived from his expressions at oral argument?  

He began, relatively early in the oral argument, by making space for Paul Clement to elaborate on his "framework" and by posing a question about RFRA:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: You were beginning by giving us a framework for your argument. Do I think of this as a statutory case? Of course, the First Amendment is on the stage at some point here, but I take it you can prevail just on the question of statutory interpretation, and if that is so, are there any statutory rules that work in your favor, that is to say, avoiding a constitutional question or how do we think about this case, primarily as a statutory case?

Justice Kagan thereafter pointed out that RFRA was a "special kind of statute" that "specifically refers back to a "body of constitutional law."

Justice Kennedy also asked about the relative substantial burden of paying any fines: "Let's assume that the cost of providing insurance is roughly equivalent to the $2,000 penalty. How ­­ how is the employer hurt? He can just raise the wages."

Clement eventually answered that “If they take away the health care insurance, they are going to have to increase the wages to make up for that. And they're going to have to pay the $2,000 penalty on top of it, plus they're going to have to violate their ­­ their own interest which is, we actually ­­ we believe it's important to provide our employees with qualified health care.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Okay, the last is important. But just assume hypothetically that it's a wash, that the employer would be in about the same position if he paid the penalty and the employer ­­ pardon me, an employee went out and got the insurance and that the employee's wages were raised slightly and then it's ­­ and that it's a wash so far as the employer are concerned, other than the employer's religious objection, but just on the financial standpoint. Can we assume that as a hypothetical. Then what would your case be?

MR. CLEMENT: I think my case would be that in that case the government might be able to sort of support itself on the compelling interest. I think there would still be a substantial burden on their exercise. But again, this all turns on issues that the government hasn't put in issue.

Toward the end of Clement's time, Kennedy posed a different type of query:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Just before your time starts to go too fast, how would you suggest that we think about the position and the rights of the ­­ of the employees? And you can have hypotheticals about the employer makes them ­­ wants to make them wear burkas and so forth. That's not in this case. 

But in ­­ in a way, the employees are in a position where the government, through its healthcare plans, is ­­ is, under your view, is ­­ is allowing the employer to put the employee in a disadvantageous position. The employee may not agree with these religious ­­ religious beliefs of the employer. Does the religious beliefs just trump? Is that the way it works?

In Kennedy's extensive colloquy with Solicitor General Verrilli, the subject veered from compelling governmental interest back to the status of RFRA:

JUSTICE KENNEDY:  Is it your position that part of the compelling interest here is that you have to protect the integrity ­­ the operational integrity of the whole Act?

GENERAL VERRILLI: It is part of our argument, absolutely. And ­­ but it ­­ but there is in addition to that, much more ­­

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Does that mean the constitutionality of the whole Act has to be examined before we accept your view?

GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, I think it has been examined, Your Honor, is my recollection.

(Laughter.)

GENERAL VERRILLI: But ­­ but with respect to ­­ but with respect to the ­­ there is a particularized interest here in that what we are talking about is a question of whether 14,000 employees and their families get access to this contraceptive coverage.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: You ­­ you have exempted a whole class of corporations and you've done so under your view not because of RFRA.

GENERAL VERRILLI: So let me ­­ let me go to that ­­

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Now, what ­­ what kind of constitutional structure do we have if the Congress can give an agency the power to grant or not grant a religious exemption based on what the agency determined? I recognize delegation of powers rules are somewhat more abundant insofar as their enforcement in this Court.

But when we have a First Amendment issue of ­­ of this consequence, shouldn't we indicate that it's for the Congress, not the agency to determine that this corporation gets the exemption on that one, and not even for RFRA purposes, for other purposes.

 Kennedy later continued on the issue of compelling governmental interest:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: I still don't understand how HHS exercised its judgment to grant the exemption to nonreligious corporations if you say it was not compelled by RFRA.

GENERAL VERRILLI: I don't think ­­

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Then it must have been because the health care coverage was not that important.

GENERAL VERRILLI: It didn't grant an exemption to any nonreligious organizations, Justice Kennedy. It granted an exemption to churches, and that was it. . . .

And later, Justice Kennedy, whose opinions on abortion are certainly complex, asked Verrilli what seemed a version of a particular "slippery slope" that had not been extensively considered:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Under your view, a profit corporation could be forced ­­ in principle, there are some statutes on the books now which would prevent it, but ­­ could be forced in principle to pay for abortions.

GENERAL VERRILLI: No. I think, as you said, the law now ­­ the law now is to the contrary.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: But your reasoning would permit that.

GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, I think that ­­ you know, I don't think that that's ­­ I think it would depend on the law and it would depend on the entity.

 Finally, during Verrilli's argument, Justice Kennedy expressed interest in a hypothetical posetd by Justice Alito about a law requiring humane treatment of animals and therefore prohibiting kosher and halal slaughter.

Justice Kennedy asked no questions during Clement's rebuttal, but Clement gave the last word to Kennedy:

 . . . . If I could have just one second more to say that the agency point that Justice Kennedy has pointed to is tremendously important, because Congress spoke, it spoke in RFRA. Here the agency has decided that it's going to accommodate a subset of the persons protected by RFRA. In a choice between what Congress has provided and what the agency has done, the answer is clear.

Certainly Clement's articulation is simplistic, but it could satisfy Kennedy's initial search for some statutory construction principles that might make the answer to the divisive issues also seem simple.

[image: Justice Kennedy by Donkey Hotey via]

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Abortion, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Oral Argument Analysis, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink

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Comments

Congress needs to end ScaliaCare for all of the Justices now. Let them buy their own private insurance on their dime not mine.

Posted by: Liberty1stl | Mar 25, 2014 6:26:40 PM

Anecdotally, this case seems to have generated the most amicus since NFIB v. Sebelius. I am quite interested in how SCOTUS will construe the RFRA where it is predicated on an expression of Congress seeking the court to respect its prior precedent. That said, in light of Citizens United v. FEC and the First Amendment considerations, this may make for some interesting reading when the opinion drops.

Of other interest to me is the Halbig v. Sebelius case that was argued before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The publication of the panel’s comments indicate a predisposition to hold that the ambiguities of PPACA do not impose the penalty (tax) on employers in jurisdictions (36) that chose not to establish an exchange.

Posted by: Tom N | Mar 25, 2014 9:59:23 PM

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