Sotomayor’s contraception ruling not what either side wants it to be
Despite the conservative bent on the U.S. Supreme Court, religious groups found a liberal ally on the high court as 2013 ended.
But as 2014 arrived, one wonders: Did they really?
Just hours before the date-effective of a controversial mandate in President Barack Obama’s health-care law, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor temporarily blocked regulations requiring coverage for contraception under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, Pub. L. No. 111-148).
On Dec. 31, in a two-sentence order, Sotomayor acted on the emergency appeal filed by a group of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, that believed the provision–42 U. S. C.§ 300gg-13(a)(4)–would result in harsh fines if they didn’t provide contraception, which the Catholic Church opposes.
The justice gave the government until Friday to respond to the order’s argument the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation would violate religious-freedoms protections, including provisions of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA; Pub. L. No. 103-141).
In an otherwise dry news cycle of holiday countdowns, fireworks and parties, news reports on the development gained steam on social media where the conversation widely was one of an Obama-appointed justice rebelliously breaking with the administration.
In legal terms, however, Sotomayor’s ruling was narrowly defined and hardly groundbreaking.
The government’s official statement suggested as much, stating the nuns are not subjected to the contraception requirement.
The White House said the Justice Department has already stated that the mandate to provide contraception does not apply to such organizations.
Such is the nature of all things Obamacare, the president’s signature domestic policy achievement.
In the run-up to the New Year’s countdown, the White House spun numerous success stories about the law’s merits and the millions now with access to affordable healthcare.
The president’s Twitter feed promoted the law’s merits through the New Year’s countdown and into the next day. But Sotomayor’s very limited ruling still ruled the news cycle.
As for assertions that Sotomayor somehow proved disloyal to the president, there’s no “there-there,” as the saying goes.
This particular ruling is one of a sea of legal motions and appeals flooding on to the shores of the High Court. It doesn’t end with the law’s enactment, and Sotomayor’s ruling casts little legal precedence.
One can only assume — because neither the White House nor the Supreme Court justice are commenting on what the ruling means politically or to why the justice took the action she did – that conservative hopes of a liberal rift or a sea-change for future votes are likely to be disappointed.
Nothing about this law has been easy. If there is a plan, it’s been so widely revised, altered, diminished and changed as to become unrecognizable at this point. For those holding their breath of a monumental disruption to the law, we suggest you breathe soon.
It’s not likely.
The law continues apace, moving doggedly forward. As of now, unlike a few days ago, millions more Americans have health insurance. The legal twists and turns of how this law is applied will continue with no apparent end in sight.
All of which isn’t news to anyone passionately involved in this political and legal debate. Passions being what they are—constantly running hot and even hotter—they aren’t likely to be cooled by anything that’s taken place this week.
The Spin Cycle–positive and negative–about the law continues to churn, making otherwise narrow legal rulings look more significant that how they are legally defined.
It’s the way it’s been and will continue to be.
The Affordable Health Care Act is now law, a few nuns in Denver don’t have to provide contraception and most likely won’t have to in the future, and all the rest of the ambiguity remains for another fight, another hyped-up news cycle in another otherwise news-barren day.
The case is Little Sister of the Poor v. Sebelius, No. 13A691.