Monday, May 16, 2016

Supreme Court "Punts" On Contraceptive Mandate Case

The U.S. Supreme Court today took the unusual step of sending the controversial dispute over the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate compromise for religious non-profits back to the relevant Courts of Appeals without giving those courts any guidance on the merits.  In a per curiam opinion in Zubik v. Burwell  (Sup. Ct., May 16, 2016), the Court said in part:
In light of the positions asserted by the parties in their supplemental briefs, the Court vacates the judgments below and remands to the respective United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fifth, Tenth, and D. C. Circuits. Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans “receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.” ....
The Court expresses no view on the merits of the cases. In particular, the Court does not decide whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, whether the Government has a compelling interest, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.  Nothing in this opinion, or in the opinions or orders of the courts below, is to affect the ability of the Government to ensure that women covered by petitioners’ health plans “obtain, without cost, the full range of FDA approved contraceptives.” ... Through this litigation, petitioners have made the Government aware of their view that they meet “the requirements for exemption from the contraceptive coverage requirement on religious grounds.” ...  Because the Government may rely on this notice, the Government may not impose taxes or penalties on petitioners for failure to provide the relevant notice....
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, filed a concurring opinion emphasizing that the Court has decided nothing about the merits of the case, warning that in the past some court had incorrectly read similar disclaimers by the Court as signaling something about the merits.

In separate orders, the Court applied its decision to six additional cases posing the same legal issue in which certiorari petitions were pending.  The Court's actions no doubt reflect a 4-4 split on the merits.  In its per curiam opinion today, the Court-- eternally hopeful--added:
We anticipate that the Courts of Appeals will allow the parties sufficient time to resolve any outstanding issues between them.
New York Times reports on the decision.