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U.S. Supreme Court

Kennedy, Roberts Key to Obamacare Challenge

The consensus about the latest Supreme Court case involving the Affordable Care Act is that the two key votes are Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The rest of the Supreme Court justices appeared to be split along ideological lines during oral arguments yesterday over whether the statutory language in the health law only allows federal subsidies to consumers who bought their health insurance through a state-run exchange, not the federal exchange.

The Washington Post's Robert Barnes reports that Kennedy said there was a constitutional problem with the interpretation of Obamacare that states had to create their own exchanges or the federal government would "'send your insurance market into a death spiral'" by taking away their subsidies. That is coercive pressure that the federal government is not allowed to apply, Kennedy said. Barnes further reports that "Kennedy brought up the 'standard of constitutional avoidance.' That means that if there are two possible interpretations of a statute, judges should choose the one that is plainly constitutional instead of the one that raises constitutional questions."

Roberts, who was the swing vote in upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare, did not ask any questions that provided insight into his leanings on the case, Barnes reports.

A ruling against the Obama administration would result in 7.5 million Americans losing their subsidies, Barnes also reports.

Swing Justice Kennedy Skeptical in King v. Burwell Arguments

The updates about the U.S. Supreme Court's arguments today in King v. Burwell are coming fast and furious. The petitioners are seeking to invalidate the insurance subsidies in states with federal exchanges. SCOTUSBlog reports that Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing justice on the court,  "expressed deep concern with a system where the statute would potentially destroy the insurance system in states that chose not to establish their own exchanges – likening this to an unconstitutional form of federal coercion. That made him seem skeptical of the petitioners’ reading of the statute, a hopeful point for defenders of the existing subsidies in all states."

Obamacare Loss in Supreme Court Would Cost States Billions

Next month, the US Supreme Court is going to hear a case over whether the Affordable Care Act authorizes the federal government to give subsidies to people who purchase health-insurance policies through the federally run insurance exchange. The argument against allowing the subsidies is that the law may have been drafted to only authorize subsidies given to people who buy their policies through state-run exchanges. If the justices rule in favor of that argument, Florida could lose $441.9 million in subsidies, Texas $247.5 million, North Carolina in $163.2 million and so on, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent blogs.

Sargent also notes that a number of states have argued that they had no notice that their decision not to set up their own exchanges would imperil the tax subsidies: "Thus, they argue, if the Supreme Court guts subsidies, it would impose a “dramatic” hidden punishment on them and their residents for their decision not to set up an exchange, despite the fact that they had no clear warning of the consequences of that decision. This raises serious Constitutional concerns, and as a result, the states argue, the Supreme Court should opt for the interpretation of the statute that doesn’t raise those concerns — the government’s interpretation that subsidies are universal."

Judge: Supreme Court Should Reject Subjective Intent for True Threats

The U.S. Supreme Court currently is considering the standard that should be applied to judge whether someone has stepped outside the bounds of the First Amendment and truly threatened others. Kevin Reed, a magistrate judge in Memphis, wrote in the Washington Post today that the justices should apply an objective standard, not a subjective standard, to true threats. If a subjective intent standard is applied, then prosecutors would have to prove that a defendant purposefully intended to threaten a victim, leaving them in the untenable position of trying to prove something that exists only in a defendant's mind, Reed says. "Abusers are keenly aware that victims never really know if their threats are serious or not," the judge concludes. "Ultimately, their objective is to keep victims guessing about whether they are in real danger. The Supreme Court should refuse to protect this manipulative behavior."

Hope in Latest Obamacare Challenge

Linda Greenhouse, writing in her regular column for the New York Times about the U.S. Supreme Court, suggests that the latest challenge to Obamacare may also fail before the justices because they would have to upend traditional ways of interpreting federal statutes in order to find for the challengers. At issue is "the validity of the Internal Revenue Service rule that makes the tax subsidies available to those who qualify by virtue of their income, regardless of whether the federal government or a state set up the exchange on which the insurance was bought. The challengers’ argument that the rule is invalid depends on the significance of two sub-clauses of the act that refer to 'an exchange established by a state,' seemingly to the exclusion of the federally established exchanges." A coalition of Democratic and Republican attorneys general argued in a brief that, finding that tax subsidies are only available on state-run exchanges, would surprise states with "'a dramatic hidden consequence of their exchange election.”' There is much Supreme Court precedent that Congress must give "'clear notice'" to states of the consequences of their choices in federal law, Greenhouse said, and a narrow reading of the exchange language in Obamacare would undermine that.



Will the US Supreme Court Gut the Fair Housing Act?

SCOTUSBlog's Lyle Denniston reports on oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday about a civil rights doctrine that rejects discrimination in housing even if it is not intentional, so long as it has a "disparate impact" on minorities: "At issue in the case of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project is how far Congress went in 1968 in banning racial discrimination in home sales or rentals: did it only ban intentional bias, or did it also outlaw housing policies that simply have a negative effect on minorities?"

The Fair Housing Act, a key law in prohibiting racial discrimination in housing, was passed in 1968 shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

Justice Antonin Scalia was on both sides of the issue during the oral arguments, reflecting the overall split in the bench on the issue, Denniston reports.

Fair housing advocates are concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court, with its five-member conservative majority, took up the case even though there is not a split between the circuit court of appeals in applying the disparate impact doctrine in fair housing cases. Elizabeth Julian, president of the Inclusive Communities Project and the former Assistant Secretary of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD, told ProPublica "the end of disparate impact policies and cases ... would severely hamper advocates’ ability to go after systemic housing discrimination in a nation where the segregation of black Americans has barely budged in many cities and where it is growing for Latinos."

Supreme Court Hears Fair Housing Case Today

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today about a key civil rights doctrine in fair housing law: the disparate impact doctrine, which allows litigants to show that a policy is discriminatory by showing the results disproporionately affect one group of people, even if the discrimination isn't intentional, the Wall Street Journal's Robbie Whelan and Jess Bravin reports. At issue is the pattern of Dallas real-estate developers building the vast majority of government-subsidized housing in poor minority communities, not in wealthier, predominantly white communities. The Supreme Court will hear if the current system of tax subsidies violates the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and promotes racial segregation.

The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss blogged that the case is not just one that fair-housing advocates should watch but that public-education advocates should watch too  "'because the segregation of low-income minority schools undermines efforts to narrow achievement gaps between middle class and low-income minority students.'"

The WSJ notes that two other cases involving the disparate impact doctrine were settled before the U.S. Supreme Court could hear them.

Supreme Court Divided Over a Judge's Free Speech Rights

Reuters' Lawrence Hurley reports that the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to be closely divided over a Florida judge's challenge to a law that bars judicial candidates from soliciting campaign contributions. Notably, the case was heard just about five years after the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the Citizens United opinion, is likely to be the swing vote, Hurley reports. The liberal justices appeared to favor keeping a law that tries to safeguard the judiciary from political influence, while the conservative justices appeared to favor the First Amendment interests tamped down by the law.


Supreme Court Rejects Another Health Law Challenge

Reuters' Lawrence Hurley reports that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal brought by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and the Alliance for Natural Health USA, challenging "various aspects of the law known as Obamacare including the so-called individual mandate that requires people to obtain health insurance or pay a tax."

Supreme Court Declines Louisiana Same-Sex Marriage Case

Shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals of Fifth Circuit heard oral argument in a case that upheld Louisiana's ban on same-sex marriages, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up that case, The Guardian's Amanda Holpuch reports. There are four other cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that went through the Sixth Cicuit, which is the only federal circuit court to uphold bans on same-sex marriage so far.


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