Through much of the U.S. Supreme Court's term, the nine justices
found common if narrow ground to bridge their differences. Many of
their high-profile decisions avoided the polarization that defines
Washington today. That all changed on Monday, the last day of the
nine-month term, with the re-emergence of a familiar 5-4 fault line
in a dispute over a U.S. law requiring employers to provide
insurance for contraceptives.
For 30 minutes Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative who wrote the
majority opinion, and liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote
the lead dissent, voiced their competing views of the meaning for
America of the decision permitting some corporate employers to
object on religious grounds to certain kinds of birth control.
In recent weeks the justices had resolved an array of disputes,
including over abortion protests and presidential appointment power,
police searches of cellphones and environmental regulation, as well
as rules for class-action lawsuits.
In all of those, the nine managed to find shared terrain, even some
unanimity. In the cases over abortion protests and presidential
“recess” appointments, the justices ruled 9-0 on the bottom line,
even as four justices broke away each time to protest the majority’s
But religion is different. The justices divide bitterly over it.
Monday's case was further clouded by the issue of reproductive
rights and the assertion by the family-owned companies in the
dispute that some contraceptive drugs and devices are akin to
In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the companies
challenged the Obamacare insurance requirement for employee birth
control. They objected to four methods, including the so-called
morning-after pill. They said they should qualify for an exemption
under a 1993 religious freedom law. The Obama administration
countered that for-profit corporations, even closely held ones, are
not covered by the 1993 law.
In his opinion for the court's five conservatives, Alito said there
was a federal interest in ensuring that people who run their
businesses for profit not compromise their religious beliefs. “A
corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to
achieve desired ends,” he said. He asserted the decision would have
Alito said Congress did not want to exclude people who operate
for-profit businesses from the law's protections. Ginsburg countered
that such a view effectively allows religious owners to impose their
views on employees who might not share their belief.
In her dissent representing the four liberals, Ginsburg called the
ruling one of “startling breadth.” A women’s rights advocate in the
1970s, she recalled how the court had long declared contraceptive
coverage crucial to women’s participation in the economic life of
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The last announced opinion of the term, Monday's case was arguably
the most high-profile. It forced the justices to confront difficult
issues against the backdrop of the enduringly controversial 2010
signature healthcare law of Democratic President Barack Obama.
The term featured none of the blockbuster decisions of the past two
years when the court upheld the Obamacare law and set the pace for
same-sex marriage and voting rights. All told, this term's cases
failed to capture public attention the same way. The rulings gave
each side - left and right - something to call a triumph.
The justices also ruled narrowly, and even unanimously, in some
major business cases, including one brought by Halliburton testing
how easily shareholders can band together in class-action lawsuits
When the court separately ruled that the streaming video service
Aereo Inc had violated copyright law, the majority stressed the
decision was limited and did not cover other technologies such as
In politically gridlocked Washington, the justices, particularly
Chief Justice John Roberts, could be feeling institutional pressure
to come together rather than pull apart, Harvard law professor
Richard Fallon said.
“We have this enormous gap in politics today, between liberals and
conservatives,” Fallon said. “The chief justice may be naturally
concerned that people not look at the Supreme Court and see it
divided in this same way.”
But the justices found themselves more apart than together on
Monday. Sitting alongside each other on the long mahogany bench,
Alito and Ginsburg barely looked at each other while reading from
(Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Howard Goller, Amy Stevens
and Ross Colvin)
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