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Supreme Court gives partial victory to Little Sisters of the Poor

May 16, 2016

The US Supreme Court has declined to issue a ruling on a key test of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, giving at least a temporary victory to the Little Sisters of the Poor and other plaintiffs in the case.

In a short but unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court sent the Zubik v. Burwell case back to lower courts, asking those courts to determine whether a compromise could be reached that would satisfy the demands of Catholic institutions that challenged the policy requiring contraceptive coverage in health-care programs. 

The surprise ruling strongly suggested that the Supreme Court justices found themselves locked in a 4-4 split after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and could not reach a verdict in the case. The Zubik case could eventually reach the Supreme Court again, after adjudication in lower courts, but that would almost certainly occur only after a new justice had been added to the bench, allowing for a definitive ruling. 

"The court expresses no view on the merits of the case," the May 16 ruling said. But the Little Sisters of the Poor-- the most visible plaintiffs in the case-- saw the decision as a victory. Until a final ruling is issued, the plaintiffs will not be subject to penalties for failing to follow the provisions of the Obamacare legislation. 

Shortly after hearing oral arguments on the case in March, the Supreme Court asked both the plaintiffs and the Obama administration to provide further briefs, indicating what sort of compromise policy they would find satisfactory. The justices have now asked lower courts to seek a compromise on the basis of those submissions.

 
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