Supreme Court sends Obamacare case back to lower court

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Cherry blossom trees bloom on the grounds of the U.S. Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday avoided issuing a major ruling on a challenge brought by religiously affiliated non-profit groups to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.

The justices, in a unanimous decision, wrote that they were not deciding the case on the merits but instead sent the case back down to the lower courts for opposing parties to work out a compromise.

The decision to send the case back to the appellate level appears to be a direct impact of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February. Scalia, a stalwart conservative, would likely have ruled against the Obama administration.

The court currently has four justices appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democrats.

“It seems pretty clear that this is a compromise born out of an eight-justice court, where the justices avoid saying anything on the merits and try to make the case go away,” said Steve Vladeck, a CNN contributor and a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law.

“It’s not the first time they’ve punted since Scalia’s death, but it may well be the most brazen one.”

The White House has argued that the divided court and prospect for 4-4 rulings on major cases is a primary reason why the Senate should act on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s seat. Senate Republicans have no plans to hold hearings or vote on Garland’s nomination before the November election.

This was the fourth time the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the signature legislative achievement of the Obama administration, and the second case challenging the contraception mandate. In 2014, the court ruled in favor of closely held for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby that objected to providing certain contraceptives.

The challenge to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate came from religiously affiliated non-profit groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, who object to having to provide “abortifacients and contraceptives” to their employees.

The Obama administration offered the groups an accommodation meant to respect their religious liberty concerns, but the groups say that it is not good enough and still makes them complicit in committing a sin. They argue the accommodation forces them to violate their religious beliefs or pay ruinous fines in violation of federal law.

In its ruling Monday, the court said it is not deciding whether the religious exercise of the challengers has been substantially “burdened.”

“When all is said and done, the challengers may well get what they want — not having to directly provide contraceptive coverage against their religious beliefs,” Vladeck said. “But if the court gets its way, that will be the result of a pragmatic compromise, not a legal ruling about the balance between individual rights and religious freedom.”

At oral arguments in March, the justices seemed divided and a few days later issued an unusual order for more briefs suggesting that they were searching for a compromise.

By Ariane de Vogue

CNN Supreme Court Reporter