3 seismic Supreme Court rulings will soon rock our world

Mark this first day of June. By the last day of June, the United States could be a different place.

The U.S. Supreme Court this month will rule in one case that could alter the social fabric of the nation by making gay marriage legal. Another decision could help secure the future of Obamacare or perhaps doom the law to failure. A third will decide whether one form of lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

June is the last month of the court’s term, and the justices tend to wait until the final week or weeks of the term to deliver their biggest blockbusters. They typically release their decisions on Mondays, of which there are five this month. But here’s the thing: No one outside the court knows when the court will release a given ruling.

The justices may be making the most important and far-reaching decisions of the day, but they also know a thing or two about drama. Will they announce the ruling on same-sex marriage on the last Monday of June (the 29th) or the Monday before? Will Obamacare come before gay marriage or after? Or will both come on the same day?


The case: Obergefell v. Hodges

James Obergefell is a Cincinnati resident who, in 2013, flew to Maryland with his partner of more than two decades and married him at the airport. They flew in a specially equipped plane because Obergefell’s partner, John Arthur, had ALS. Shortly before he died, Arthur sued to force the state of Ohio to recognize the two as spouses. Among other things, he wanted Obergefell’s name to appear on the death certificate as Arthur’s spouse. Richard Hodges, director of the Ohio Health Department, is the named defendant.

Joined to the case

The Supreme Court consolidated similar lawsuits challenging same-sex marriage bans in Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan. A lawsuit is pending in Georgia, but Georgia’s ban is not specifically part of this case.

Potential impacts in Georgia

  • Plaintiffs say they aren’t asking the court to create a new constitutional right to same-sex marriage, according to scotusblog.com. They are asking that gay couples be accorded the same fundamental right to marry that straight couples have enjoyed for millennia. If the court finds that same-sex couples have a right to marry, the impact would be the same in every state, regardless of its laws.
  • Alternatively, the court could find that states may continue to ban gay marriage. Remember, though: Obergefell wants to force Ohio to recognize a marriage that was performed legally in Maryland. So that issue is also at hand: are all states, regardless of their laws, required to recognize a marriage performed in another state?
  • Georgia leaders, including Attorney General Sam Olens, have said they will honor the court’s ruling.


The case: King v. Burwell

This case concerns four words — “established by the state.” Obamacare requires all adults to obtain health insurance, but it also seeks to make insurance affordable. For the poor, the law mandated a large-scale expansion of Medicaid. For working people without coverage, the law provided for an “exchange,” a Web-based marketplace, where they could buy individual policies. The law also created a tax credit to help pay for the policy. Now here’s the rub: 34 states, including Georgia, decided not to create their own insurance exchange, opting instead to use the one built by the federal government. And that is the heart of King v. Burwell: the plaintiffs say that the law specifies that citizens will receive tax credits to use on an exchange “established by the state.” The plaintiffs argue that the tax credits are therefore illegal in any state that did not create its own exchange. David King is one of four Virginia residents who sued over the four words. Sylvia Burwell is the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department.

Potential impacts in Georgia

  • Of the 541,000 people in the state who signed up for insurance on the exchange during the latest enrollment period, 90 percent received a tax credit to help them afford the policy. Many, perhaps most, would be unable to afford the insurance if the tax credit were rescinded.
  • Because Georgia refused to expand Medicaid, hundreds of thousands of poor people here have continued to go without insurance. If the court disallows the tax credits, hundreds of thousands more will be forced to give it up.
  • Some states have the option of quickly creating their own exchanges to comply with the law, if it comes to that. Georgia passed a law prohibiting the state from doing so.

The fate of Obamacare

In its first major ruling on Obamacare, the court overturned a provision that required the states to expand Medicaid. Instead, the states were given the option of expanding. In Georgia, that effectively kicked one pillar out from under Obamacare. A ruling that disallows the tax credits would kick out another one, leaving the law near collapse.


The case: Glossip v. Gross

In this Oklahoma case, death row inmate Richard Glossip challenges the three-drug mixture the state uses for lethal injection. Glossip argues that the first drug in the “protocol,” midazolam, neither relieves pain nor produces a deep, coma-like state. Consequently, the administration of the second and third drugs would cause extreme pain to a person who remains conscious after receiving the first drug — a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In April 2014, Oklahoma executed inmate Clayton Lockett with the three-drug protocol. Lockett struggled and writhed before finally dying of a heart attack 45 minutes after the injections began. His botched execution has focused intense attention on the methods used in Oklahoma. Oklahoma and Florida have both used midazolam as the first in the three-drug execution protocol. It replaces barbiturates that were used earlier but are no longer available to states for use in executions.

Impact in Georgia

It might be minimal because the state stopped using a three-drug protocol three years ago and never used midazolam. It switched to a one-drug procedure that uses pentobarbital.

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