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How the Supreme Court Split — Even Among the Majority


Justices listened to health care arguments in March. Sketch by William Hennessy, Jr.

Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal outlined how the two major Affordable Care Act opinions – from Chief Justice John Roberts and from a joint dissent — split the Supreme Court Thursday. Even among the majority, the justices had some differences in reasoning, she said.

The majority decision said Congress couldn’t enact the individual mandate through its power from the commerce clause. But the court upheld the individual mandate to buy because of Congress’ power to tax.

The decision was a surprise, Coyle said, because the commerce clause issue was the government’s major argument.

Watch Marcia Coyle’s full analysis on NewsHour

The dissenters – Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – agreed in a joint opinion that they would have struck down the law in its entirety.

“The key person in this whole thing was clearly the Chief Justice,” Coyle said. Roberts, an appointee of former president George W. Bush, became the swing vote on the monumental 5-4 decision, read the decision from the bench this morning and authored
the majority opinion.

Some disagreement remained within the group of justices in the majority. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have upheld the entire law, and disagreed within the majority opinion about the commerce clause, for a 7-2 ruling.

On the Medicaid issue, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote an opinion to contrast Roberts’ conclusions. He had noted that the expansion of the program reaches a broader group than just the neediest Americans.

However, Ginsburg wrote that those people with incomes less than $15,000 a year are indeed in poverty too. (See page 50 in the full text.)

“They didn’t throw it out. It removed the threat that it was constitutionally coercive,” she said.

Coyle said she caught a few words with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a leading voice in opposition to the law, as they left the courtroom this morning.

“He’s the one who said, we won on the Medicaid argument, but the bottom line is now it’s a policy choice for the states, on whether they want to participate,” Coyle reported.

Kennedy read the dissent opinion from the bench and argued that the states that participate in the program will subsidize states that don’t participate, Coyle said. (The dissenters’ opinion on Medicaid expansion and states’ roles begins on page 28 of the full text.)

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