Scalia’s Death Likely to Change SCOTUS Health Care Rulings

Published March 2, 2016

The death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could influence the outcome of health care-related cases the Court is scheduled to hear during its current term, which extends through June of this year.

Scalia was reported to have died of natural causes at age 79 on February 13 during a hunting trip in Texas. In the Ronald Reagan appointee’s 29 years on the Court, Scalia earned a reputation for his scathing dissents stemming from an “originalist” judicial philosophy which says jurists should interpret the U.S. Constitution according to the Framers’ original intent.

Divisive Health Care Cases

The Court has begun to rule on several health care cases pending during its current session.

In Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, the Court voted 6–2 to uphold a Second Circuit Court finding that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, a federal law, preempts Vermont’s health care database law, which imposes a data reporting burden on insurance companies. Justice Kennedy delivered the majority opinion on March 1.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Universal Health Services v. United States ex rel. Escobar could significantly restrict or expand the range of lawsuits insurers can bring against health care providers under the False Claims Act.

Lower courts handed down conflicting rulings in six cases, now consolidated with Zubik v. Burwell. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requires employers to provide employees insurance coverage for contraception. The Court will decide whether HHS sufficiently accommodates the freedom of employers to provide only health insurance plans consistent with their religious beliefs.

Tie Votes Expected

Appellants and appellees who were banking on Scalia’s vote may receive profoundly different rulings without him on the bench, says Josh Blackman, associate professor of law at South Texas College of Law and author ofUnprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare.

“If the Court splits 4–4, it gets complicated,” Blackman said. “Usually, a tie vote affirms the lower court, but in some of this term’s cases, lower courts have ruled differently on a single question.” 

Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Richard Epstein says Scalia preferred to leave health care questions “to the democratic process” and focused on whether laws were in accord with powers granted by the U.S. Constitution.

“[Scalia] looked at these issues as a matter of constitutional law,” Epstein said.

Michael Hamilton ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s research fellow for health care issues and managing editor of Health Care News.

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