SCOTUS Term Wrap-Up

Authors: Adrianna Dinolfo, Maya Efrati

June 29, 2015 marked the end of a U.S. Supreme Court term to remember. From rulings on the Affordable Care Act to lethal injection, the Court made decisions affecting several of our nation’s most pressing issues. Read about six significant decisions that emerged as the term drew to a close.

King v. Burwell

In a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an attempt to undermine the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its core goal of ensuring health insurance for all Americans. The Court did not accept a claim seeking to strip tax credits from people living in states with a federally-facilitated insurance marketplace. At the crux of the U.S. Supreme Court case was a six word phrase in the law: “an exchange established by the State,” referring to the tax subsidies provided under the ACA to assist insured Americans in paying for their health coverage. Under the law, a state can set up its own marketplace. But if they choose not to, the federal government will operate a healthcare exchange instead, so that the citizens of that state can shop for insurance plans on The federal marketplace operates in varying capacities in 34 states. The plaintiffs claimed that Congress intended to make these tax credits available only in states where the exchange was set up by itself but not in states where the exchange was set up by the federal government. For example, states like Alabama and Virginia use a federally-facilitated marketplace, while Nevada and Oregon use federally-supported state-based marketplaces; therefore, the plaintiffs felt Alabama and Virginia should not receive federal tax credits. Had the Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the tax credits in these 34 states would have been eliminated, increasing the number of uninsured people in the country by as much as 8.2 million by 2016.Yet the Justices rejected this claim. The majority opinion established that the phrase in question, when correctly read in the context of the rest of the law, in fact allows for tax subsidies in both federally-run and state-run healthcare exchanges. The five justices noted that the three main goals of the law were to (1) ban insurance companies from denying coverage because of a pre-existing condition; (2) require everyone take personal responsibility by getting covered; and, (3) provide tax credits to make coverage affordable. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that, “Congress intended these three reforms to ‘work together to expand insurance coverage….’” In other words, Congress did not intend to deny subsidies to anyone based upon how his or her state establishes the exchange, and instead intended for the law to be successful in insuring health coverage. This ruling preserves the coverage for the 16.4 million insured Americans and should serve as the end to the long debate over the ACA.

Obergefell v. Hodges

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court firmly established that marriage equality is a fundamental right of all Americans. With this decision, states are required to provide and recognize same-sex marriages just as they do marriages between a man and woman. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the final paragraph of the majority opinion, wrote, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family… [The challengers] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” The historic ruling was the result of decades of tireless work by LGBTQ advocates and allies, and represents a victory for all Americans. Yet while marriage might be constitutionally protected, many other basic rights such as employment protections are not. LGBTQ Americans can get married on Friday, and find themselves fired on Monday – and so the fight for equality continues.
Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.

In a 5-4 majority decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key mechanism to curtail housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, upheld the use of “disparate impact,” a practice or policy that has a discriminatory effect without a discriminatory intent, under the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and a central legacy of the fight for civil rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., prohibits and provides remedies for housing policies that result in racial discrimination. As a result of this key goal, the Court ruled that lawsuits alleging disparate impact may continue. Had the U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise, a critical tool for fighting housing discrimination would have been lost. This decision, a major win for civil rights activists and housing advocates, will help prevent and stop further housing discrimination and hopefully motivate a renewed commitment to the Fair Housing Act on part of the federal government.

Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission

Arizona Proposition 106, or the Constitutional Amendment Relating to the Creation of a Redistricting Commission, was passed in 2000 by Arizona voters. As a result, an independent redistricting committee was created to re-draw the state’s legislative and congressional district lines after the census every ten years. The commission was to be independent from the legislature in order to curb the practice of “gerrymandering:” creating districts to intentionally benefit a particular party. The Republican-controlled state legislature sued in 2012 on the grounds that the Election Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which assigns legislatures the power to draw congressional districts, required that the legislature alone be in charge of the redistricting process. However, in a 5-4 decision, the Court rejected this interpretation and in doing so sided with the voters of Arizona, upholding one of the state’s best tools for fighting gerrymandering. Without this ruling, the redistricting system in Arizona, along with similar systems in other states, would have been at risk. This ruling represents a victory for participatory democracy, as well as for transparent and fair governance.

Glossip v. Gross

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to lethal injection. A group of inmates sentenced to death claimed that the use of midolzolam, one of three drugs in the lethal cocktail that Oklahoma uses to execute prisoners, was unconstitutional. They noted that midolzolam was not a reliable means of execution, as it may leave the individual conscious and therefore able to feel the pain of the final lethal drug. Several botched executions, including one of an Oklahoma death row inmate in 2014, garnered public attention and prompted questions of whether or not these executions were violations of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. However, in a 5-4 decision, the Court disagreed. In the majority opinion, Justice Alito held that that the death-row inmates failed to establish that they were likely to succeed in proving that this particular method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment and is unconstitutionally cruel. The Court decided so because there is no better drug option than midazolam and no proof that the use of midazolam results in pain or suffering on the part of the inflicted inmate. Yet this decision is not the end of the debate on lethal injection and the death penalty. In fact, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote in his dissent that “the death penalty, in and of itself, now likely constitutes a legally prohibited ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”

Michigan v. EPA

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to Environmental Protection Agency in how it interprets and enforces the Clean Air Act. The EPA, as part of its mandate to follow Congress’ directions to limit mercury in the air through the Clean Air Act, had created a rule regarding toxic pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants. The EPA argued that it did not need to consider the cost of its regulations while initially creating the rules, but the Court disagreed. Instead, a 5-4 majority held that considering cost in the later stages of regulation was not enough, and that the EPA must include cost from the beginning of the process. The significant health benefits of regulating toxic pollution by the coal industry was put aside in favor of the industry groups that challenged the EPA. Because the protections have already been in place for years, the efforts made to cut toxic air pollution are likely to remain intact. While the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling will negatively impact environmental protection policies, advocates for these protections hope that what has already been put in place will continue to protect thousands of American lives every year. This decision is a loss for both progress in the environmental protection arena as well as the millions of Americans whose health will be negatively impacted by toxic pollution.