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The Supreme Court shut down an attack on Obamacare in the most dismissive way possible


Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at a Harvard forum in 2015.
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Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

For the third time since the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010, the Supreme Court rejected a call for it to sabotage that law — this time, in an unusually dismissive opinion.

The Court’s brief decision in California v. Texas, issued Thursday, ultimately concludes that the plaintiffs trying to undo the law had no business being in court in the first place.

The case was brought by a bloc of Republican state officials, as well as two individuals who object to Obamacare. Their case centered on the law’s individual mandate: As originally drafted, the Affordable Care Act required most Americans to either obtain health insurance or pay higher taxes, and the Supreme Court famously upheld this so-called “individual mandate” in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012) as a valid exercise of Congress’s power to levy taxes.

In 2017, however, Congress amended Obamacare to zero out this tax. So, under current law, most Americans must either obtain health insurance or pay zero dollars. The Texas plaintiffs didn’t just claim that this zeroed-out tax is unconstitutional (on the theory that a zero dollar tax can’t be an exercise of Congress’s taxing power), they claimed that the entire law must be declared invalid if the zero dollar tax is stuck down.

It was an audacious ask of the Supreme Court — requesting the justices strike down the entire law despite only claiming that a single provision of Obamacare is unconstitutional. Especially since the provision that the plaintiffs challenged literally does nothing at all.

The Court didn’t even reach the question of whether or not the ex-mandate is constitutional. In a 7-2 ruling written by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, the Court ruled that no one is allowed to bring suit to challenge a provision of law that does nothing. Four Republican appointees — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — joined Breyer’s opinion.

Suits about nothing are not allowed

The idea that no one can challenge a legal provision that does nothing isn’t especially controversial — or, at least, it wasn’t controversial before numerous high-ranking Republicans rallied behind the Texas litigation. As the Supreme Court held in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992), no one may file a federal lawsuit challenging a law unless they have suffered an “injury in fact” that is “fairly traceable” to the law that they are challenging.

Yet that didn’t stop 18 Republican state attorneys general from bringing this futile effort to kill Obamacare. In the end, they lost because of a simple fact: No one is injured by a law that requires them to pay zero dollars.

As Breyer writes, “the IRS can no longer seek a penalty from those who fail to comply” with the requirement to buy insurance. Thus, “there is no possible Government action that is causally connected to the plaintiffs’ injury.”

Really, there’s no need to say much more about this lawsuit. It was an absurd case brought under a risible legal theory that was widely mocked even by many outspoken opponents of Obamacare. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board labeled this lawsuit the “Texas Obamacare Blunder.” Yuval Levin, a prominent conservative policy wonk, wrote in the National Review that the Texas lawsuit “doesn’t even merit being called silly. It’s ridiculous.”

And now the lawsuit is dead. As it turns out, even in a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court, there are some arguments that are too laughable to be taken seriously.

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