WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a third major case on the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s health care law, granting petitions from Democratic state officials and the House of Representatives in a case with the potential to wipe out the entire law.
The court did not say when it would hear the case, but, under its ordinary practices, arguments would be held in the fall and a decision would land in the spring or summer of 2021.
Democrats, who consider health care a winning issue and worry about possible changes in the composition of the Supreme Court, had urged the justices to act quickly even though lower courts had not issued definitive rulings. They wanted to keep the fate of the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare, in the public eye during the presidential campaign and to ensure that the appeal was decided while justices who had rejected earlier challenges remain the court.
In the meantime, the law remains almost entirely intact but faces an uncertain future.
The case was brought by Republican state officials, who argued that when Congress eliminated the law’s requirement in 2017 that most Americans obtain health insurance, the law became unconstitutional. The Trump administration sided with the state officials, arguing that the rest of the health care law could not survive without the requirement, sometimes called the individual mandate.
A Federal District Court judge in Texas agreed, ruling that the entire law was invalid, but he postponed the effects of his ruling until the case could be appealed. In December, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, agreed that the mandate was unconstitutional but declined to rule on the fate of the remainder of the health law, asking the lower court to reconsider the question in more detail.
The Democratic states and the House, which intervened in the case to defend the health law, asked the Supreme Court put its consideration of whether to hear the appeal on an unusually fast track. The court turned down that request in January.
Having lost that fight, the states and the House asked the court to hear their appeal in the ordinary course. They said Supreme Court review was warranted because part of a federal law had been held to be unconstitutional, which is often reason enough for the justices to agree to hear a case. They added that the lower courts’ rulings had created uncertainty about the balance of the law.
“The uncertainty created by this litigation is especially problematic because individuals, businesses, and state and local governments make important decisions in reliance on the A.C.A.,” lawyers for the states wrote. “Prolonged uncertainty about whether or to what extent important provisions of the A.C.A. might be invalidated makes these choices more difficult, threatening adverse consequences for American families, health care markets and the broader economy.”
In urging the court to deny review, the Trump administration said that the justices should wait for a definitive ruling from the lower courts. “Immediate review is unwarranted in the case’s present posture,” the administration’s brief said, “because the court of appeals did not definitively resolve any question of practical consequence.”
The Supreme Court has already ruled in two major cases challenging core provisions of the health law. In both cases, it left most of the law in place.
In 2012, the court upheld the law’s requirement that most Americans obtain insurance or pay a penalty, saying it was authorized by Congress’s power to assess taxes. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing the controlling opinion, which was joined in its key section by the court’s four-member liberal wing.
In 2015, the court said the federal government can provide nationwide tax subsidies to help poor and middle-class people buy health insurance, rejecting an argument that the subsidies were only available in states that had created marketplaces, known as exchanges, to allow people who lack insurance to shop for individual health plans. A contrary ruling would have created havoc in the insurance markets and undermined the law.
The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joining the court’s four more liberal members to form a majority.
Justice Kennedy retired in 2018, but the remaining members of the majorities in the two cases are still on the court.