WASHINGTON – Until six weeks ago, defenders of the Affordable Care Act could take comfort in some simple math. Five Supreme Court justices who had twice preserved the Obama-era health care law remained on the bench and seemed unlikely votes to dismantle it.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death in mid-September and her replacement by Amy Coney Barrett barely a month later have altered the equation as the court prepares to hear arguments Tuesday in the third major legal challenge in the law's 10-year existence.
Republican attorneys general in 18 states, backed by the Trump administratio n, are arguing that the whole law should be struck down because of a change made by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2017 that reduced the penalty for not having health insurance to zero.
A court ruling invalidating the entire law would threaten coverage for more than 23 million people. It would wipe away protections for people with preexisting medical conditions, subsidized insurance premiums that make coverage affordable for millions of Americans and an expansion of the Medicaid program that is available to low-income people in most states.
“No portion of the ACA is severable from the mandate,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told the court in a written filing. The Republicans are pressing this position even though congressional efforts to repeal the entire law have failed, including in July 2017 when then-Arizona Sen. John McCain delivered a dramatic thumbs-down vote to a repeal effort by fellow Republicans.
Barrett is one of three appointees of President Donald Trump who will be weighing the latest legal attack on the law popularly known as “Obamacare.” Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh are the others. It's their first time hearing a major case over the health law as justices, although Kavanaugh took part in the the first round of suits over it when he was a federal appeals court judge.
Of the other justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stepehen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor have voted to uphold the law. Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas have voted for strike it all down.
The case is being argued at an unusual moment, a week after the presidential election, with Democrat Joe Biden on the cusp of winning the White House. Control of the Senate also is hanging in the balance.