The Supreme Court issued rulings in two closely watched cases this morning. Both were 5-4 decisions.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the majority ruled that closely held for-profit corporations can’t be held to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The justices clarified that the ruling does not apply to other insurance mandates — like vaccinations, or blood transfusions. It also can’t be used to shield companies owned by religious people against claims of discrimination.
In the second case, Harris v. Quinn, the court ruled that home health workers who enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining can’t be compelled to pay a “fair share” of a public sector union’s direct costs for negotiating on their behalf (this is commonly misreported as a question of whether people can be forced to join a union, which is illegal). The court did not extend the ruling to all public employees’ unions, although they may revisit the question in the future.
Here’s a roundup of what people are saying about today’s highly anticipated rulings.
At Scotusblog, Kevin Russell writes that the majority ruled that for-profit corporations are “persons” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but as his colleague Amy Howe notes, they only considered “closely held corporations …owned and controlled by members of a single family” and took a pass on the question of whether this might apply to publicly traded companies.
Although the ruling was narrowly tailored, Adam Liptak reports for The New York Times that it “opened the door to challenges from other corporations to many laws that may be said to violate their religious liberty.”
Michael Lindenberger reports for the Dallas Morning News that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) released a statement lauding the decision and predicting that “hundreds more plaintiffs will wend their way through the courts” with related claims.
And while the decision focuses only on “closely held” corporations, as Sarah Kliff points out at Vox, “Since about 90 percent of companies are, however, closely-held, its unclear how much of a difference that distinction makes in the ruling’s scope.”
But Ian Millhiser reports for ThinkProgress that the ruling “emphasizes that there are other steps the government could take to ensure that Hobby Lobby’s employees have access to birth control, such as by paying for it themselves or by extending an accommodation for religious non-profits so that it also covers private employers.”
Amanda Marcotte, writing at Slate, argues that while Hobby Lobby won its case, it will have lost a major PR battle if employees of companies like Hobby Lobby end up being covered anyway — and the Christian right comes off looking like “little more than a movement of sex-obsessed busybodies.”
Hobby Lobby doesn’t object to all birth control methods, only what religious conservatives have characterized as “abortifacients.” But Erika Eichelberger and Molly Redden point out that there is no scientific basis for the distinction.
At ThinkProgress, Jack Jenkins writes that “while conservatives would have the American public believe that protecting Hobby Lobby is about protecting all religious people, the reality is that today’s ruling actually hurts people of faith.”
In addition to the fact that the vast majority of religious Americans use birth control, Jenkins notes:
Other evangelical Christians take umbrage with the theological premise undergirding [Hobby Lobby's] case — namely, that opposing the ACA mandate is somehow an extension of a pro-life position. Richard Cizik, former Vice President for Governmental Affairs for the National Association of evangelicals, wrote in the Huffington Post this weekend that evangelicals who support Hobby Lobby “are not actually being pro-religious freedom or pro-life.” Similarly, Julia K. Stronks, evangelical Christian and political science professor at Whitworth University, teamed up with Jeffrey F. Peipert, a Jewish family-planning physician, to pen an op-ed for Roll Call earlier this month in which they argue that granting Hobby Lobby religious exemption will actually lead to more abortions.
MoJo’s Dana Liebelson went through Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s Hobby Lobby dissent and pulled out her best lines of attack.
And TNR’s Jonathan Cohn argues that Hobby Lobby shows why the public sector, rather than private companies, should provide health insurance.
Of Harris v. Quinn, SCOTUSBlog’s Tom Goldstein writes, “It remains possible that in a later case the Court will overturn its prior precedent and forbid requiring public employees to contribute to union bargaining. But today it has refused to go that far. The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence.”
The Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey writes that in Harris, SCOTUS “turned back the clock on hundreds of thousands of home care and child care workers who have managed to improve their work lives through collective bargaining.”
Thanks to union contracts that include anti-free rider provisions, this almost entirely female workforce has made huge improvements in wages and benefits, in training, and in respect in the states that provide for collective bargaining. The Court gives this no value and says the right of the free riders to have the benefits of union contracts without having to pay anything for them is the preeminent constitutional value. The Court majority’s balancing of interests is skewed: the right to vote democratically for a union contract that holds everyone to the same obligation and makes improved wages and working conditions possible is more important than the right to get something for nothing.
In a preview of the ruling, Ian Millhiser noted that the home care workers did quite well with collective bargaining:
By any reasonable objective measure, the union struck a very good deal for Illinois’ home health aides. Before the union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement, the aides’ wages were just $7.00 an hour. Now they are $11.65 an hour, and they are scheduled to increase to $13.00 per hour in December. Nevertheless, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRWLDF), an anti-union litigation shop, found a handful of home health aides who object to this arrangement.
Steven Greenhouse reports for The New York Times that the ruling could have been far worse for public sector unions:
Justice Alito wrote that home-care aides who are typically employed by an ill or disabled person with Medicaid’s paying their wages would be classified as partial public employees, which would not be the same as public-school teachers or police officers who work directly for the government….
The case, Harris v. Quinn, was brought by eight Illinois workers who provided home health care to Medicaid recipients. They asked the court to overrule a 1977 decision that declared that government employees can be required to pay fees to unions for representing them and administering their contracts even if they disagree with the union’s positions. The majority declined to overrule that foundational decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education — a move that could have significantly cut into the membership and treasuries of public-sector unions.
But at MSNBC, Adam Serwer argues that the conservative majority questioned the foundation of Abood v. Detroit, and thinks it was a significant signal of their future intentions.
At oral argument, the group urged the Justices to overturn [Abood]. The court did not do so – though the majority refers to its “foundations” as “questionable” …
“The good news out of this case is clear: The majority declined that radical request. The Court did not, as the petitioners wanted, deprive every state and local government, in the management of their employees and programs, of the tool that many have thought necessary and appropriate to make collective bargaining work,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan in a dissent joined by the other Democratic appointees. “The bad news is just as simple: The majority robbed Illinois of that choice in administering its in-home care program.”
The Roberts court has in the past, offered warnings of its future intentions to gut prior precedents or laws that have been upheld, such as when it upheld a key section of the Voting Rights Act in 2009 before striking it down in 2013. By calling the Abood decision “questionable,” the conservative majority may very well be signalling its intention to overrule it in the future.
So Kagan’s “good news” might be quite temporary.