WASHINGTON D.C. (NBC) — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, remains valid, rejecting a claim by a group of conservative states that a recent change to the law made it unconstitutional.
By a 7-2 vote, the court said the challengers did not have legal standing to sue because they did not make a strong enough showing that the law harmed them. But the decision also suggested it would be difficult for any challengers to try again on the same legal theory.
In their dissent, JusticesSamuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have taken the case and declared it unconstitutional.
The law’s challengers, 18 red states led by Texas, urged the court to rule that Obamacare’s requirement for nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance or pay an income tax penalty — known as the individual mandate — is unconstitutional. For that reason, they said, the entire law must be scrapped.
“The plaintiffs claim that without the penalty the act’s minimum essential coverage requirement is unconstitutional,” Breyer wrote in the opinion, adding, “They also argue that the minimum essential coverage requirement is not severable from the rest of the act,” meaning the entire law is invalid.
“We do not reach these questions of the act’s validity, however, for Texas and the other plaintiffs in this suit lack the standing necessary to raise them,” he wrote.
Breyer was joined in the ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, as well as Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who were appointed by President Donald Trump.
Republicans have long opposed the law, former President Barack Obama’s signature legislation. But more than 20 million Americans now depend on it for their health insurance, and there is broad public support for its requirement that insurance companies must cover pre-existing health conditions.
The Supreme Court first upheld the health care law in 2012. The majority opinion written by Roberts said the individual was a legitimate exercise of Congress’s taxing authority. But in 2017, the Republican-led Congress set the tax penalty at zero.
That led the red states to argue that because the tax was effectively eliminated, the revised law could not be saved as a tax and was therefore an unconstitutional effort to require all Americans to obtain something. A federal judge in Texas agreed, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld that ruling.
But 20 blue states, led by California, asked the Supreme Court to overturn those lower court decisions. They said with the tax penalty at zero, there effectively is no individual mandate, so the law is not unconstitutional. It may encourage Americans to buy insurance, but it does not require anyone to do anything, they said.
The Supreme Court’s newest member, Barrett, was considered a possible vote in agreement with the red states about the constitutionality of the mandate. In a 2017 law review article, she said the Roberts opinion “pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statue.”
But Barrett joined the court’s majority Thursday in rejecting the challenge.
The red states said Congress meant the health care law to work as an integrated whole. Prohibiting insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and allowing young people to stay longer on the policies of their parents were meant to work because of the near-universal command to buy insurance. Without the mandate, the challengers said, the law falls apart.
But the blue states said the test for deciding whether the rest of a law can be saved if part of it is struck down is a simple one: What did Congress want? They said the answer is found in the 2017 action that set the tax at zero: Congress left the rest of the law intact.