By Noah Rothstein
The Supreme Court has once again saved the Affordable Care Act in California v. Texas (2021).
The Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that Texas, 17 other states, and two individuals lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act because they had not shown any past or future harm.
Justice Stephen Breyer gave the majority opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, while Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch were the two dissenting votes.
The plaintiffs argued that the law’s individual mandate was unconstitutional once it no longer carried a penalty because it had been justified as falling under the congressional power of taxation. They also claimed that the rest of the law could not survive without the mandate.
Regarding the individual plaintiffs, Breyer noted that the lack of penalty makes the individual mandate provision of the law unenforceable, thus removing any damage.
“To find standing here to attack an unenforceable statutory provision would allow a federal court to issue what would amount to ‘an advisory opinion without the possibility of any judicial relief,'” Justice Breyer wrote.
The Court ruled against Texas’ argument, upholding the individual mandate’s severability and keeping the rest of the law intact.
In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), the Court concluded that the individual mandate was constitutional, with Chief Justice John Roberts agreeing with the majority in a 5-4 decision.
In King v. Burwell (2015), the Court, in a 6-3 decision, interpreted that tax credits were available through both state-created and federally created exchanges to the Internal Revenue Service, despite unclear language from a congressional statute.
In a dissent joined by Justice Gorsuch, Justice Alito wrote that this decision is “the third installment in our epic Affordable Care Act trilogy,” which “follows the same pattern as installments one and two. In all three episodes, with the Affordable Care Act facing a serious threat, the Court has pulled off an improbable rescue.”
Justice Alito asserted that, like in previous Obamacare cases, the Court reached to find a way to keep the law in place.
In his majority opinion, Justice Breyer did not address most of the arguments that were the basis of the lower court decisions, focusing instead on whether the plaintiffs were entitled to sue at all.