Supreme Court will take up challenge to Obamacare's individual mandate

The decision to take up the lawsuit in the new term that starts in October means the program will continue for at least another year and any ruling will come after Election Day.

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By Pete Williams

The Supreme Court said Monday that it will take up a legal challenge to Obamacare, agreeing to hear the case in its new term that begins in October. That means the program will continue for at least another year.

It also means the justices won't be handing down a ruling on the contentious issue of health care in June, just as the presidential campaign heats up. That may be good news for Republicans, who would prefer to avoid the issue in an election year.

A federal appeals court ruled in December that the individual mandate in Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act, is unconstitutional. But it sent the case back to the trial judge for another look at whether the entire law is invalid or some parts can survive.

The House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, and a group of blue states urged the Supreme Court in January to take the case and issue a decision promptly, in its current term, instead of leaving the fate of the law in limbo.

"That uncertainty threatens adverse consequences for our nation's health care system, including for patients, doctors, insurers, and state and local governments," they told the court.

But the justices rejected the invitation for expedited scheduling, agreeing instead to follow the normal rules.

Since the law was passed, opponents have attacked the individual mandate, a central feature, which requires all Americans to buy insurance or pay a penalty on their income tax. The Supreme Court upheld Obamacare in 2012, ruling that it was a legitimate exercise of Congress' taxing authority.

But in 2017, the Republican-led Congress set the tax penalty at zero. That led Texas and a group of red states to rule that the revised law is unconstitutional. A federal judge in Texas agreed, ruling that because the tax was eliminated, the law could no no longer be saved as a use of the taxing power. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld that ruling by a 2-1 vote in mid-December.

But the appeals court decision ordered the trial judge to reconsider his ruling that the entire law must fall without the glue of the individual mandate holding it together. The Trump administration initially said parts the law could be saved without the individual mandate, but then changed its position to say the rest of the statute could not stand.

Now that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, it will not go back to the trial judge for that analysis. The justices will hear the case in the fall, with a decision by June of 2021.