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Supreme Court upholds Obamacare: Republicans say it proves Democrats wrong

Conservatives in the United States just lost a crucial case before the Supreme Court – but they have managed to find a significant silver lining.

The US Supreme Court has rejected the latest attempt from Republicans to overturn the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.

In a 7-2 decision today, the court ruled that Texas and 17 other Republican-controlled states did not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the healthcare law.

It’s the third time America’s highest court has upheld Obamacare since it passed in 2010, when Democrat Barack Obama was president.

Four conservative justices – John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – joined the three progressives in the majority. Two conservatives, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito, dissented.

“Today’s decision is the third instalment in our epic Affordable Care Act trilogy, and it follows the same pattern as instalments one and two,” Justice Alito wrote in his dissenting opinion.

“In all three episodes, with the Affordable Care Act facing a serious threat, the court has pulled off an improbable rescue.”

American conservatives have managed to find a silver lining in their defeat. But before we get to that, we should explain what the case was about and why it failed.

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The Supreme Court’s ruling explained

The case concerned a provision of Obamacare that requires Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. If you were following US politics a decade ago, you might know it as the “individual mandate”.

That provision, initially a key pillar of the law, was designed to compel people to obtain insurance, the theory being that it would increase enrolment in Obamacare.

But it became toothless in 2017, when Republican majorities in the US House of Representatives and Senate reduced the penalty to $0.

The 18 Republican states, joined by two individuals, argued this reduction in the penalty made the law unconstitutional.

“The plaintiffs claim that without the penalty, the Act’s minimum essential coverage requirement is unconstitutional. Specifically, they say neither the Commerce Clause nor the Tax Clause (nor any other enumerated power) grants Congress the power to enact it,” Justice Stephen Breyer explained in his majority opinion.

“They also argue that the minimum essential coverage requirement is not severable from the rest of the Act. Hence, they believe the Act as a whole is invalid.”

To sum up the Republicans’ argument in plainer language: a tax of $0 is not a valid use of the taxing power granted to Congress in the Constitution; that provision cannot be separated from the law as a whole; therefore the entire law should be declared unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court never got around to considering the merits of this argument, however, because it found the plaintiffs had no standing. In other words, they had no legal right to bring the case.

“A plaintiff has standing only if he can ‘allege personal injury fairly traceable to the defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct and likely to be redressed by the requested relief,’” said Justice Breyer, quoting the judgment from a precedent-setting case in 2006.

“Neither the individual nor the state plaintiffs have shown the injury they will suffer or have suffered is ‘fairly traceable’ to the ‘allegedly unlawful conduct’ of which they complain.

“With the penalty zeroed out, the IRS (America’s version of the ATO) can no longer seek a penalty from those who fail to comply. Because of this, there is no government action that is causily connected to the plaintiffs’ injury – the costs of purchasing health insurance.”

This is simple enough to grasp: no one is hurt by a law that makes them pay $0.

The Republican plaintiffs tried to argue the “injury” they suffered was the cost of purchasing health insurance. But because the penalty is $0, meaning the government would penalise them nothing for staying uninsured, they could not link their alleged injury to Obamacare.

Hence the lack of standing.

Conservatives claim vindication

President Joe Biden labelled today’s ruling “a big win for the American people”.

“With millions of people relying on the Affordable Care Act for coverage, it remains, as ever, a BFD. And it’s here to stay,” he said.

He was alluding to the moment, infamously caught on a hot mic, when he told Mr Obama the law’s passage was a “big f***ing deal”.

Mr Obama also issued a statement about the court’s decision.

“Today the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. Again,” he said.

“This ruling reaffirms what we have long known to be true: the Affordable Care Act is here to stay. The principle of universal coverage has been established, and 31 million people now have access to care through the law we passed, with millions more who can no longer be denied coverage or charged more because of a pre-existing condition.

“Now we need to build on the Affordable Care Act and continue to strengthen and expand it.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who oversaw Obamacare’s passage through Congress a decade ago, condemned Republicans for bringing the lawsuit.

“We will never forget how Republican leaders embraced this monstrous way to rip away America’s healthcare in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” she said.

None of those statements contained anything surprising. The reaction from Republicans, however, was more unconventional.

Some did bemoan the court’s ruling.

“The failed Obamacare system will stagger on as a result of this decision,” said Senator John Barrasso, for example.

“Every American’s healthcare has been harmed by Obamacare.”

But that wasn’t the most common reaction. Many conservatives claimed vindication, saying the ruling was proof that Democrats were hyperbolic last year when they opposed Donald Trump’s nomination of Justice Barrett to the Supreme Court.

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Justice Barrett, a conservative who was confirmed to her position by the Republican-controlled Senate days before the presidential election, filled the seat vacated by the death of progressive Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

She is the reason the conservative justices now hold a 6-3 majority. When Justice Ginsburg was alive, it was only 5-4.

Before Justice Barrett’s confirmation, Democrats warned her appointment could lead to Obamacare being overturned.

“President Trump and his party, and Judge Barrett, will overturn the Affordable Care Act,” said then-vice presidential candidate, now Vice President, Kamala Harris.

“Republicans are desperate to get Judge Barrett confirmed before the Supreme Court takes up this case in November, and millions of Americans will suffer for their power play.”

Ms Harris was referring to the case the court struck down today.

“A vote for Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a vote to eliminate healthcare for millions in the middle of a pandemic,” said Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer.

“The American people should make no mistake. A vote by any senator for Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

“A vote for Judge Barrett is a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” said Democratic Senator Chris Coons.

You get the picture.

So, instead of mourning today’s legal defeat, conservatives are delighting in the fact that their opponents’ doomsday predictions were proven wrong.

“Fevered Democratic predictions that Amy Coney Barrett would be the fifth vote to tear down the whole statute were proven to be the fantastical nonsense we always knew they were,” said former lawyer Dan McLaughlin, writing for the conservative publication National Review.

This is not what Democrats told us would happen. With great certainty and prodigious huffing and puffing, the leading lights of the Democratic Party assured as that the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett would be the end of Obamacare.

“Will any of these people apologise?”

Meanwhile, the Democrats believe they still have reason to fear Justice Barrett’s influence.

Last month the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case with massive implications for America’s abortion laws.

The court’s conservative majority has a chance to overturn the precedent set by Roe vs Wade, a landmark ruling from 1973 that prevents state governments from banning abortion before the foetus is “viable” at about 24 weeks.

Justice Barrett’s vote will be crucial.

So, the fight over Obamacare might be over for now. But the next fight is just starting.

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