Supreme Court Wraps Up Term Issuing 2 Major Decisions

One order issued by the court is a major setback for President Obama's Affordable Care Act, and a victory for for-profit corporations. The other is a major defeat for public employee unions.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The U.S Supreme Court has wrapped up its latest term, issuing two important decisions. One is a setback for the Affordable Care Act and a victory for some for-profit companies.

GREENE: The other decision is a major defeat for public employee unions. We'll hear reaction to both decisions in a few minutes. We begin our coverage with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: By a 5 to 4 vote, the court partially struck down an important requirement of President Obama's health care law, the mandate that all employer insurance plans cover all FDA-approved forms of birth control. The law provides an exception for religious nonprofits but not for-profit corporations. Challenging that distinction was the Hobby Lobby Corporation, a chain of arts and crafts stores that employ 16,000 people. It objects to certain forms of contraception, IUDs for instance, viewing them as an early form of abortion. Yesterday, the court sided with Hobby Lobby in a decision that would allow for-profit corporations to refuse to provide coverage for all forms of birth control.

Writing for the conservative court majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, owners of a company should not be forced to choose between their religious convictions and the economic benefits of operating as a corporation. Alito sought to cast the decision as narrow in scope. It applies only to closely held corporations, those that do not have public shareholders. The dissenters, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, pointed out, however, that closely held does not mean small. Many of America's biggest multibillion dollar corporations are closely held. Among them Cargill, Bechtel, Dell computers, Heinz food and many, many more. Alito also seemed to suggest that the decision does not apply to mandatory coverage of vaccines, blood transfusions and compliance with civil rights laws, but legal experts were divided as to whether the decision is, in fact, so limited - Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton.

MARCI HAMILTON: While the court gives lip service to limitations on the decision, the reasoning of the decision, the mechanics of the decision, foretell many, many more extreme claims coming forward.

TOTENBERG: University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock has a different view.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: This is about businesses where every owner agrees on a religious commitment, and it has demonstrated that religious commitment over time. And there just aren't many such cases.

TOTENBERG: If the tea leaves in the birth-control case were difficult to divide - that was not true in the court's other decision involving public employee unions. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that when employees vote to unionize, those who don't join the union still have to pay what are called fair share fees - that is they have to pay for the negotiation of the contract that they benefit from and cannot free ride on members' dues. In recent years, some conservatives on the Supreme Court have openly suggested it's time to overrule that decision, and yesterday the court took its first steps toward doing just that. The specifics of the case were these - 10 years ago, 28,000 home health care workers who care for adults with disabilities in Illinois voted to approve a union. Since then, hourly wages have nearly doubled. The workers now receive regular training and have health insurance themselves. The state is happy, too. It says the workforce has been stabilized, professionalized, and the government has saved more than $600 million by keeping adults with disabilities in their homes instead of institutions.

But some workers object to paying anything to the union, contending such payments violate their First Amendment rights. Yesterday, by a 5 to 4 vote, the court ruled for those objectors but dodged a First Amendment ruling on all public employee unions. Instead, the conservative majority said that the home health care workers in Illinois are only partial public employees since they're hired and fired by the patients, and therefore, there is no requirement that those who don't join the union pay fair share fees. That is not, however, where the decision ended. Alito said that the 1977 ruling is based on, quote, "questionable foundations." He said that in the public sector, public employee unions are essentially lobbyists for more money and more employees, whereas in the private sector, the marketplace imposes its own limits. In short, Alito has set up the legal goalposts and invited those opposed to public employee unions to kick the ball through. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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