Justice Sotomayor’s Puzzling Dissent in the Wheaton College Case

Sonia_Sotomayor_in_SCOTUS_robe

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

The battle over the ACA’s Contraception Mandate continues. Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction to Wheaton College, a religious nonprofit that is challenging the mandate in federal court. As a religious nonprofit, Wheaton qualifies for a regulatory accommodation. It can avoid the mandate by completing a form stating that it opposes covering contraceptives for its employees and giving this form to its third-party plan administrator; the administrator must then provide contraceptive coverage to the employees at its own expense. Wheaton objects that completing the form and submitting it to the administrator would make it complicit in providing coverage for contraceptives, which it opposes on religious grounds. As a consequence, Wheaton argues, the accommodation itself violates RFRA.

Yesterday, by 6-3 vote, the Court ruled that the government may not enforce the mandate against Wheaton pending final disposition of Wheaton’s legal challenge. As a result, until the case is resolved, Wheaton need not complete the form or provide it to the plan administrator. The government, which obviously knows about Wheaton’s challenge, may arrange contraceptive coverage for Wheaton’s employees in the meantime. The Court expressly stated that its grant of a temporary injunction “should not be construed as an expression of the Court’s views on the merits” of Wheaton’s challenge.

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, dissented. Her dissent is puzzling. On the one hand, she makes a valid point about the standard for granting this sort of injunction. Traditionally, a high bar exists. The Court will grant an injunction only if the legal rights at issue seem “indisputably clear.” At this point, it’s hard to say that about Wheaton’s claim. There are arguments on both sides and, as Justice Sotomayor points out, the district court hasn’t yet determined the facts and adjudicated the case.

But Justice Sotomayor didn’t stop there, and the rest of her opinion is unfortunately problematic. Here are three quick examples:

  • Internal Inconsistency: Notwithstanding her complaint that the Court had preempted the trial judge’s adjudication of the merits of Wheaton’s claim, Justice Sotomayor presumes to decide the merits herself. “Wheaton has not stated a viable claim under RFRA,” she writes. That seems rather a prejudicial statement, especially as Wheaton’s case, or one very like it, will undoubtedly reach the Court soon. Besides, the Court expressly stated that it wasn’t ruling on the merits of Wheaton’s claim. One should note that, later in her dissent, Justice Sotomayor says only that “Wheaton’s claim is likely to fail.” So perhaps her first statement was  just  a little careless. But one expects more in a Supreme Court opinion.
  • Unfair Criticism: Justice Sotomayor sharply criticizes the Court for going back on its word earlier this week in Hobby Lobby. In Hobby Lobby, the Court indicated that the accommodation is a less restrictive means of promoting the government’s interest in women’s health than the mandate itself. If the accommodation is an acceptable alternative in Hobby Lobby, she asks, why not in this case? This criticism is unfair. The Hobby Lobby Court didn’t say the accommodation is the least restrictive means of promoting the government’s interest, only that it is a less restrictive means than the mandate itself. True, the Court’s language in Hobby Lobby was a little opaque. But it’s wrong to suggest the Court is being sneaky or indecisive.
  • Pot and Kettle: You’d hardly know it from reading Justice Sotomayor’s opinion, but last January she herself joined the Court in granting a similar injunction to another religious nonprofit challenging the mandate, the Little Sisters of the Poor. In a footnote in yesterday’s opinion, Justice Sotomayor tries to distinguish the January case, but not very convincingly. The Little Sisters’ third-party administrator wasn’t going to cover contraceptives anyway, she writes, so, unlike Wheaton’s employees, the Little Sisters’ employees had nothing to lose. But does anyone think Wheaton’s employees will lose contraceptive coverage during the course of this litigation? Both Wheaton’s third-party administrator and the government are aware of the situation and will undoubtedly make such coverage available.

As I say, Justice Sotomayor could simply have discussed the high standard for a temporary injunction and left it there; that would have made for a much stronger opinion. As it is, her dissent suggests a level of frustration that the Court’s ruling yesterday really doesn’t merit. Perhaps Justice Sotomayor knows something she’s not saying about how the Justices will likely decide the next challenge to the mandate that reaches them.

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