Roundup: SCOTUS sends contraception ruling back to lower courts; upholds smoking judgment

Supporters of contraception rally before Zubik v. Burwell, an appeal brought by Christian groups demanding full exemption from the requirement to provide insurance covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act, is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley 

The Supreme Court on Monday threw out lower-court rulings that had required Christian employers to comply with a mandate in President Barack Obama’s healthcare law to provide female workers insurance covering birth control, but ducked a major ruling on the merits of the case.

The court’s unanimous action represented at least a short-term victory for the nonprofit employers, primarily Roman Catholic organizations, because it tossed out rulings in seven different cases that had endorsed the contraception mandate. The decision forces the lower courts to reconsider the dispute.

“The court expresses no view on the merits of the cases. In particular, the court does not decide whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened,” the unsigned ruling stated.

In a separate order, the court also sent six other cases on the same issue back to lower courts.

The compromise decision indicated that the court, which is evenly divided with four conservative justices and four liberals following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February, wanted to avoid a 4-4 split in the case. Such a decision would have affirmed the lower-court rulings that favored the administration but would not have provided a decision to be applied nationwide.

Mark Rienzi, a lawyer for the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Roman Catholic nuns that filed suit against the Obama administration, said he was “very encouraged by the court’s decision, which is an important win for the Little Sisters.”

The justices in previous decisions since 2012 had fended off other major conservative challenges to the Obamacare law, considered President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

The dispute before the justices involved seven consolidated cases focusing on whether nonprofit entities that oppose the contraception mandate on religious grounds can object under a 1993 U.S. law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to a compromise measure offered by the government.

The justices declined to decide whether the accommodation crafted by the Obama administration in 2013 to ensure that the employees receive contraception coverage violates their employer’s religious rights.

The decision was announced by Chief Justice John Roberts. The court said it was opting against ruling on the merits in part because of “the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties” in recent weeks.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a concurring opinion stressing the narrow nature of the decision. Lower courts should not view the ruling “as signals of where this court stands,” she wrote.

After the oral argument in the case on March 23, it appeared the court could split 4-4, with liberals backing the government and conservatives supporting the challengers.

In an unusual move six days after the oral argument, the court asked both sides to file additional briefs outlining possible compromises, indicating the justices were motivated to avoid a deadlock.

“We are disappointed that the court did not resolve once and for all whether the religious beliefs of religiously affiliated non-profit employers can block women’s seamless access to birth control,” said Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center.

“We were gratified by the ruling today,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “And this announcement does ensure that millions of women across the country can continue to have access to their healthcare. And it is a reflection of something we have long believed: which is that it is possible to prioritize both access to healthcare for everybody while protecting the religious liberty of every American.”

Ban on Court protests upheld

The Court rejected a challenge to a law that hits the justices close to home: a ban on protests on the marble plaza in front of the courthouse where they hear cases and issue rulings.

The court left in place a 2015 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which said the 1949 federal law prohibiting the protests does not violate the guarantee of freedom of speech under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The court often attracts protesters, particularly on days when it hears cases on hot social issues such as abortion or gay rights. Protesters are allowed to gather on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse but not on the plaza, which is considered part of the courthouse grounds and is reached by walking up several steps from the sidewalk.

A Maryland man named Harold Hodge challenged the law after being arrested in 2011 for standing in the plaza with a 2-by-3-foot (60-by-90 cm) sign hanging from his neck stating, “The U.S. Gov. Allows Police To Illegally Murder And Brutalize African Americans And Hispanic People.”

Hodge was approached by a police officer who told him he was violating the law, issued him three warnings to leave, then handcuffed and arrested him when he refused, according to court papers.

The law made it unlawful “to parade, stand or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court building or grounds” or to “display in the building and grounds a flag, banner or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization or movement.”

Hodge’s suit said he wanted to “engage in peaceful, non-disruptive political speech and expression” and that the law violated his First Amendment rights.

The appeals court ruling against Hodge was written by Judge Sri Srinivasan, who President Barack Obama considered nominating to the Supreme Court following the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia before picking the same appeals court’s chief judge, Merrick Garland.

Srinivasan wrote that the plaza is not a traditional public forum. The government “can impose reasonable restrictions on speech as long as it refrains from suppressing particular viewpoints,” Srinivasan wrote, adding that protesters can still make their voices heard from the sidewalk area.

The appeals court reversed a 2013 ruling by U.S. District Judge Beryl Powell who wrote that the law was “unreasonable, substantially overbroad and irreconcilable with the First Amendment.”

Exxon must pay $236M in New Hampshire case

The Supreme court also rejected Exxon Mobil Corp’s appeal of a $236 million judgment against the oil company in a case brought by the state of New Hampshire over groundwater contamination linked to a gasoline additive.

The justices left in place the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling upholding the judgment by a jury that in 2013 spurned Exxon’s claims that the contamination linked to its fuel additive was not its fault but rather the fault of the local gas stations and storage facilities that spilled it.

Exxon argued in its appeal that its due process rights were violated because New Hampshire had not proved the company’s liability for the alleged pollution at each individual site.

The additive at the center of the case is called methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. It is an oxygen-containing substance that was added to gasoline to promote more complete combustion and reduce air pollution.

It was one of several additives that had been recommended by regulators to reduce emissions but has now largely been phased out of the U.S. fuel supply because of the hazard it poses to groundwater.

New Hampshire’s lawsuit against Exxon, headquartered in Irving, Texas, dates back to 2003.

State officials called the $236 million judgment the largest MTBE-related verdict since states and other agencies began making claims for remediation and other damages. Exxon said in court papers it is the largest-ever jury verdict in New Hampshire.

In 2014, Exxon also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court a $105 million jury verdict in favor of New York City over MTBE contamination, but the court declined to hear the case.

Philip Morris appeal knocked back

Also on Monday, the Court declined to hear Philip Morris USA’s challenge to a $25 million Oregon jury verdict in favor of a man whose wife died of a lung cancer-related brain tumor after smoking the company’s low-tar cigarettes.

By rejecting the cigarette maker’s appeal, the high court left in place a July 2015 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Paul Schwarz, the husband of Michelle Schwarz, a long-term smoker who died in 1999. Philip Morris is owned by Altria Group Inc.

Michelle Schwarz began smoking in 1964 at age 18 and tried but failed to quit numerous times before switching in 1976 to the company’s Merit brand that was advertised as “full flavor” but “low-tar” cigarettes, according to court papers.

She died in 1999 at age 53 from a brain tumor that was the result of metastatic lung cancer, according to court papers. The suit accused the company of negligence and fraud.

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