Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in ACA Challenge

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in California v. Texas, the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA expanded insurance coverage, and includes popular provisions such as required coverage of preexisting medical conditions.

Three major issues are at play in this case:

  • Do the plaintiff challengers of ACA—two individuals, the Trump Administration, and a number of states led by Texas—have standing to bring this case?
  • Did reducing the penalty amount under Code Sec. 5000A(c) to $0 render the individual mandate in the ACA unconstitutional?
  • If the mandate is unconstitutional, does that mean the act itself is unconstitutional, in whole or in part?


The individual mandate in the ACA requires that taxpayers either maintain minimum essential coverage, have an exemption, or pay a penalty. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 zeroed out the penalty. The plaintiffs in this case argue that without the penalty, the mandate is unconstitutional. They further contend that the mandate is so essential to ACA that it cannot be severed from the rest of the law, and thus the entire act should be struck down. At the very least, they would like the Court to strike down portions of the ACA.

The challenger states are: Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia. They have added two individuals, and the U.S. Department of Justice under the Trump Administration is also a party.

Other states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. House of Representatives have intervened to defend the ACA. The intervenor states are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington.

Oral Arguments

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both sides of this case on November 10. The challengers argued that Republicans used the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to eliminate the law’s penalty for Americans who do not get health coverage. This rendered the mandate unconstitutional, and since the mandate is so essential to the rest of the act, the whole act must also fall.

The attorneys on behalf of the House, however, argued that the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to take on a legislative role contrary to the Court’s precedent, and that striking down the ACA would throw millions of people off their health insurance, end pre-existing condition protections, and create "chaos in the health care sector."

The Supreme Court appeared unlikely to completely wipe out ACA, with key conservative justices Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh indicating that such a ruling would be too broad of a role for the courts. "I think it's hard for you to argue that Congress intended the entire act to fall if the mandate were struck down," Chief Justice Roberts said.

If the three more liberal justices agree with the two conservative justices, it would provide the minimum five votes needed for the ACA to survive its latest appearance before the Supreme Court. A decision is expected before the end of term in June.