The eight-justice Supreme Court appeared to be split as it heard yet another case regarding Obamacare on Wednesday. In the case, Zubik V. Burwell, 37 nonprofit religious organizations contended that the birth control accommodations mandated by Obamacare violate their religious beliefs.
President Obama's healthcare plan permits religious organizations to avoid directly providing contraceptive coverage, on the condition that they notify the Department of Health and Human Services with a written document. The government, with the help of the company insurer, then provides contraceptives to employees without charging the organization or the beneficiaries. Religious companies around the nation have argued that the notification they are compelled to send still makes them responsible for providing birth control to their employees and thus violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The sensitive nature of the case took on heightened significance under the current eight-justice panel, which will likely split the vote 4-4 if they vote along partisan lines. In the event of a tie, the Supreme Court would issue no opinion, and defer to the rulings of the lower circuit courts, creating the possibility of different legislation for the case throughout the country.
USC Professor Sam Erman noted that the justices have been reluctant to issue a tied ruling, and so it is likely they would find a compromise that could lead to a majority opinion. Erman explained that if the court were to issue 4-4 rulings it would forsake its responsibility of resolving lower court differences.
According to Erman, "the court not functioning as it normally would could concern some people out there and that could start turning into a certain amount of political pressure on Republicans to bring the court back to its normal staffing level."
Since February, the Supreme Court seat left open by late Justice Antonin Scalia has remained unfilled as the Republican dominated Congress continues to block President Obama's nominations.
The ruling on this case is expected in June.
Reach staff reporter Lizzy Gunn here.