Supreme Court Rules on Same-Sex Marriage, Health Care Subsidies, Other Cases Impacting States

For much of the past week, the Supreme Court has been issuing opinions at a dizzying pace. Four cases in particular impact states directly. Rulings on same-sex marriage and Affordable Care Act cases affect everyday life and have incited much discussion in Congress and among the public. Other rulings on what license plates may say and access to hotel registry information have not garnered as much attention, but have important impacts on states as well.

Marriage Equality

In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy the Supreme Court held that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. As a result of Obergefell v. Hodges, all state laws and court decisions banning same-sex marriage are now invalid.  

Kennedy’s opinion can fairly be described as a celebration of marriage generally. “No union is more profound than marriage for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” he said.

The majority opinion offers four principles that demonstrate why the fundamental right to marry applies with equal force to same-sex couples. First, the right to choose whom one marries is “inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.” Second, because the right to marry is “unlike any other in its importance,” it should not be denied to any two-person union. Third, marriage between same-sex couples safeguards children and families, just as it does for opposite-sex couples. Finally, marriage is a keystone of American social order from which no one should be excluded.  

The court relied on the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses in its opinion. In previous marriage cases such as Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated bans on interracial marriage, the court relied on both clauses. The court did not indicate the standard of review it applied to decide this case. 

Acknowledging that many may take the view that same-sex marriage should not be condoned on religious grounds, the court stated that the First Amendment protects this view and the views of religious organizations.  

Kennedy’s final words in his majority opinion summarize his opinion: 

“(The) hope (of the same-sex couples in this case) is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions,” he said. “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. 

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Affordable Care Act Subsidies

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled on June 25 that health insurance tax credits are available for the 34 federal exchanges. The court’s opinion focused largely on the consequences of ruling to the contrary: the destruction of health insurance markets.

Roberts, writing for the majority, began his opinion by pointing out that the Affordable Care Act relies on three reforms: making sure health insurance is available to everyone regardless of their heath and not charging higher premiums depending upon a person’s health, requiring everyone to be insured and offering tax credits to those with low-incomes so they can afford insurance. If only the first two reforms were implemented, he said, a well documented economic “death spiral” occurs—where health insurance premiums skyrocket because only the sick buy insurance.

The ACA allows states and the federal government to sell insurance on health care exchanges. The ACA states that tax credits are available when insurance is purchased through “an Exchange established by the State.” The technical legal question in this case—King v. Burwell—was whether a federal exchange is “an Exchange established by the State” that may offer tax credits.

The Supreme Court said yes. The court first concluded that the above language is ambiguous. But by looking at it in the context of the entire statute, the meaning of the language became clearer. Specifically, if tax credits weren’t available on federal exchanges, “it would destabilize the individual insurance market in any State with a Federal Exchange, and likely create the very ‘death spirals’ that Congress designed the Act to avoid.”

The chief justice’s analysis is simple and pragmatic.

“Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” Roberts said. “If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter. (The statutory language at issue) can fairly be read consistent with what we see as Congress’s plan, and that is the reading we adopt.”

As a result of this decision, the status quo remains. If an individual otherwise eligible for a tax credit buys health insurance on a state exchange or a federal exchange, the tax credit will be available.

Justices Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion. Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito dissented.

Specialty License Plates

In Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that Texas may deny a proposed specialty license plate design featuring the Confederate flag because specialty license plate designs are government speech. Walker is of particular significance to state and local government, because the court did not narrow the 2009 landmark government speech case Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed a specialty license plate that featured a faint Confederate flag in the background and the organization’s logo, a square Confederate flag. After receiving public comment on the proposed plate, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board unanimously voted against issuing it, noting that many members of the general public found the design offensive. Sons of Confederate Veterans sued Texas, claiming specialty plates are private speech and the board engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination by refusing to approve its design.

The court, disagreed, concluding that specialty license plates are government speech. It relied heavily on Summum, where the court held that monuments in a public park are government speech and a city may accept some privately donated monuments and reject others.

According to the court the license plates in this case were like the monuments in Summum in three respects. First, just as governments have a long history of using monuments to speak to the public, states have a long history of using license plates to communicate messages. Second, just as observers of monuments associate the monument’s message with the landowner, observers identify license plate designs with the state because the name of the state appears on the plate, the state requires license plates, etc. Third, per state law, Texas maintains control over messages conveyed on specialty plates and has rejected at least a dozen designs, just as the city in Summum maintained control of monument selection.

The result in Walker wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In a vigorous dissent, Justice Samuel Alito questioned much of the majority’s analysis. He pointed out that only within the past 20 years has Texas allowed private groups to put messages on license plates and argues that Texas allows those messages in order to make money, not to convey messages that the state supports.

But Breyer, ever the pragmatist, insisted that “government would not work” unless the government may determine “the content of what is says.”

According to The New York Times, nine states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia—allow Confederate flag specialty plates. At a minimum, states may ban these plates and others as a result of this decision.

Hotel Registry Statutes

In City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that a Los Angeles ordinance requiring hotel and motel operators to make their guest registries available to police without a subpoena violates the Fourth Amendment.

In his dissenting opinion, Scalia cited the State and Local Legal Center’s—also known as the SLLC—amicus brief, which noted that local governments in at least 41 states have adopted similar ordinances. Seven states—Indiana, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wisconsin—and the District of Columbia also have hotel registry statutes.

A Los Angeles ordinance requires hotel and motel operators to keep specific information about their guests and allows police to inspect the registries without a warrant or a subpoena. The purpose of the ordinance is to deter crime—drug dealing, prostitution and human trafficking—on the theory that criminals will not commit crimes in hotels if they have to provide identifying information.

The court concluded that the searches permitted by the ordinance in this case are “administrative”—that is, they are done to ensure compliance with recordkeeping requirements. While administrative searches do not require warrants, they do require “precompliance review before a neutral decisionmaker.” Absent this, “the ordinance creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests.”

According to the court, all police officers need to do to make sure a search of a hotel registry is constitutional is get a subpoena. If a hotel operator thinks the search is “motivated by illicit purposes,” the operator can move to quash the subpoena. If the officer reasonably suspects the operator may tamper with the registry before a judge can rule on the motion to quash, the officer “may guard the registry.”

In the dissent, Scalia, joined Roberts and Thomas, stated that hotels are a closely regulated business, in part because, as the SLLC’s amicus brief points out, hotel registry ordinances and statutes are so ubiquitous. Subpoenas are not required to inspect the records of closely regulated businesses.

The SLLC’s amicus briefpointed out that mobile home parks, secondhand dealers like pawnshops and junkyards, scrap metal dealers and massage parlors are subject to registration and inspection laws and ordinances. While Supreme Court precedent indicates that junkyards are closely regulated businesses, whether police inspection of other registries will require a subpoena is possible following this decision.