Supreme Court surprise: Justices break ideological lines in key ObamaCare, religious liberty decisions

Supreme Court rules on two hot-button issues

Fox News chief legal correspondent Shannon Bream breaks down the decisions on ‘Special Report’

Amid liberal calls to pack the Supreme Court, the justices handed down two more landslide rulings Thursday on an attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a Catholic foster agency that was banned from Philadelphia’s program over its religious beliefs.

Justice Stephen Breyer led a 7-2 court in upholding the ACA, also known as ObamaCare, saying that the states challenging the law didn’t have the standing to do so. And Chief Justice John Roberts led a 9-0 court in siding with the foster agency, Catholic Social Services (CSS) over Philadelphia, in what was widely viewed as a victory for religious freedom advocates. 

“CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion for the case, officially called Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. “The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.”

In this April 23, 2021, file photo members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington. Seated from left are Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Standing from left are Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool, File)

The rulings followed a flurry of unanimous or nearly unanimous rulings from the justices in recent weeks. 

Some on the right claimed that Thursday’s hot-button rulings – one favorable to Republicans and another favorable to Democrats, both with decisive majorities – undermine the push by many Democrats to pack the Supreme Court. In three other cases the justices decided this week their greatest division was 8-1. 

George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley called the Fulton ruling “the final collapse of the false narrative” that the court is “hopelessly divided” in a USA TODAY op-ed. “The Court continues to frustrate critics who insist that it is dysfunctional, divided and needs to be radically changed from packing the Court with a liberal majority” due to its “inconvenient line of unanimous decisions.” 

The court “speaks through its opinions and the message could not clearer,” Turley continued. “For a hopelessly divided ideological Court, it seems to be saying a lot in one voice not just about the law but about its own institution.”

Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Hawley told Fox News on Thursday he does not believe the Supreme Court’s recent unanimity will convince liberals to cease their efforts to pack the court. Photographer: Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he was pessimistic the Supreme Court’s recent behavior would dissuade the left from trying to add more liberals to the bench. 

“My guess is that this will not deter my friends on the left from their court-packing agenda,” Hawley told Fox News on Thursday. “They’re very committed to this. And it will probably make them mad at Justice Breyer, I suppose.”

Other Republicans saw the ACA ruling as a repudiation of Democrats’ behavior during Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation effort. In a tweet that was standard fare for Democrats during the confirmation effort, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, said Barrett “will work to gut Roe v. Wade and the ACA, taking away health care coverage from millions of Americans—including those with pre-existing conditions.”

But Barrett Thursday joined the 7-2 majority opinion written by Breyer to uphold the ACA. The opinion was also supported by GOP-appointed Justices Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh. 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett listens as President Donald Trump speaks before Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas administers the Constitutional Oath to Barrett on the South Lawn of the White House White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, after Barrett was confirmed to be a Supreme Court justice by the Senate earlier in the evening. Barrett voted to uphold the ACA in a Thursday opinion from the court. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“It’s just this simple, just a very simple answer,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters on Thursday. “Just think of all we were told that Barrett was going to end health care for all Americans. Obamacare was going to go away. Those were all smoke screens to keep Barrett from getting on Supreme Court, and they were all wrong. She was one of the seven.”

Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, a liberal group that promotes packing the Supreme Court and is pressuring Breyer to retire, pushed back on the claims of vindication from conservatives Thursday. 

“Legal conservatives: See, we told you all the talk about the threat to Obamacare during the Barrett confirmation was a bunch of nonsense!” he tweeted, before pointing out that Justice Neil Gorsuch was in the dissent on the ACA case. 

Fallon also noted that it was not just Democrats who said Barrett would overturn the ACA, but former President Donald Trump himself. 

“A reminder that Donald Trump himself said he would pick justices who would overturn the Affordable Care Act, making it quite reasonable for Democrats to hold that against his nominees,” Fallon said. 

CNN reported that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., took pride in his harsh rhetoric against Barrett’s confirmation. “‘If we hadn’t done that, maybe they would have’ killed the law,”  the senator said Thursday, according to CNN’s Manu Raju. 


“Nice of Sheldon Whitehouse to say the quiet part out loud — that he is ACTUALLY trying to threaten the court into landing on outcomes he wants,” Matt Whitlock, a Republican operative formerly with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, responded. “If he’d listened to Barrett’s answers instead of planning conspiracy theory presentations, he wouldn’t be surprised by this ruling.”

The Supreme Court’s term is nearing an end, with a handful of major cases yet to be decided. 

Among them is a student speech case about a cheerleader who was kicked off of her team for a profane Snapchat post about the team posted off of school grounds. It could have major ramifications for students’ First Amendment rights and how schools are able to handle cyber-bullying. 

There’s also a voting rights case out of Arizona, an antitrust case against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and more. 

Fox News’ Kelly Phares and Bill Mears contributed to this report. 

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