Supreme Court weighs expediting Democrats’ Obamacare appeals

By | February 6, 2020

Bloomberg–The U.S. Supreme Court signaled it will use its February 21 private conference to discuss whether to consider the fate of the Affordable Care Act on a fast-track schedule that would mean a decision by the end of June.

The indication came on the online dockets of two Democratic appeals that seek a definitive ruling upholding Obamacare during the court’s current term.

The appeals challenge a December 18 federal appeals court decision that found a key piece of the original 2010 law unconstitutional and raised questions about the rest of it. The Trump administration is seeking to invalidate the law in much of the country, throwing its support behind a suit filed by Republican-led states.

An Obamacare case would supercharge a Supreme Court term already full of polarizing issues. The court is considering cases involving abortion, guns, LGBT discrimination, the DACA deferred-deportation program and subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial information. All are scheduled to be decided well in advance of the November election.

Democrats are urging the justices to hold arguments during the last week of April—the court’s last scheduled week to hear cases—or during a highly unusual special sitting in May. Either approach would mean sharply expediting the briefing schedule, something the court is usually reluctant to do.

The New Orleans-based appeals court ruling threw out a provision that, as originally crafted, required people to acquire health insurance or pay a tax penalty. The Supreme Court in 2012 upheld this provision, known as the individual mandate, with Chief Justice John Roberts saying it was a legitimate use of Congress’s taxing power.

A Republican-controlled Congress joined with Trump to zero-out the tax penalty in 2017, leaving the mandate without any practical consequences. States led by Texas are trying to use that change to invalidate the entire Affordable Care Act, including provisions that protect people with pre-existing conditions and expand the Medicaid insurance program for the poor.

The New Orleans-based appeals court didn’t decide whether the rest of the law could stand, instead returning the case to a federal trial judge for closer scrutiny. The Supreme Court appeals attempt to bypass that process, arguing that the nation’s healthcare system is too important to allow continued uncertainty.

The Supreme Court has sent mixed signals about its interest in the Obamacare appeals, filed by the House and Democratic-led states. Last month the court rejected their request to expedite its handling of the appeals, but the justices later refused to give Republican opponents extra time to file their brief arguing against review.

The combination of those actions put the appeals on track for the court’s next private conference—and leave open at least the possibility the court could hear the case this term. If the court grants review, an announcement could come as early as the day of the February 21 conference.

The cases are California v. Texas, 19-840, and U.S. House of Representatives v. Texas, 19-841.

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