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December 2, 2016

Argument analysis: Immigrant detention and the Constitution

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

The detention of immigrants is a major tool for enforcing the immigration laws employed by the executive branch. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to detain immigrants facing removal while their cases percolate through the courts. Detention thus is poised to become more common for noncitizens in removal proceedings.

Yesterday, the justices appeared deeply divided during oral argument in Jennings v. Rodriguez. This class-action challenge to immigration detentions raises questions about whether immigrants, like virtually any U.S. citizen placed in criminal or civil detention, must be guaranteed a bond hearing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed a district court injunction that generally requires bond hearings every six months for certain classes of immigrant detainees.

The Supreme Court's immigration-detention decisions have followed a jagged path, often tracking American political and social history. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, the court in Shaughnessy v. United States ex rel. Mezei emphasized the "plenary power" of the U.S. government over immigration and upheld the indefinite detention of a long-term legal immigrant who had briefly visited his native country. In 2001, in Zadvydas v. Davis, the court interpreted an immigration statute to require judicial review of a detention decision because a "statute permitting indefinite detention of an alien would cause a serious constitutional problem." But, not long after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, in the 2003 case of Demore v. Kim, the court again invoked the plenary-power doctrine to justify the detention of a legal immigrant convicted of a crime pending his removal. These cases left something for each of the parties to argue in Jennings.

The argument required counsel to navigate the thicket of Supreme Court immigration-detention precedent and explain the complex immigration statute and different sub-classes of immigrants in the case. The justices came at the case from several different angles. Many of the justices' questions focused on gaining a better understanding of how the immigration statute allowed for the detention of different sub-classes of immigrants. Several justices seemed perplexed by fact that the statute provides for detention without a bond hearing of someone who was placed in custody at the time of attempted entry into the country but that, in contrast, a similarly situated noncitizen who was apprehended in the interior of the country enjoys the right to a hearing.

Some of the justices, especially Justice Sonia Sotomayor but also Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, found it hard to see how immigrants might constitutionally be detained without a bond hearing. Such a result, they suggested, is out of sync with the court's decisions dealing with civil and criminal detention, which are highly protective of the rights of persons subjected to a loss of liberty.

Justice Samuel Alito seemed to suggest that the constitutional issues surrounding detention might best be addressed through relief in individual cases rather than in a class action.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared keen on remanding the case to the lower court to decide the constitutional questions; he suggested that the 9th Circuit should not have employed the doctrine of constitutional avoidance because the statute was so clear - especially with respect to the mandatory detention of noncitizens convicted of certain crimes required by 8 U.S.C. 1226(c). Roberts stated that, to avoid the constitutional question, the 9th Circuit had "draft[ed] a statute or a regulation," - an approach he characterized as "quite a leap."

Ian Gershengorn, the acting solicitor general, argued the case for the government, and frequently relied on Demore v. Kim, particularly with respect to making mandatory the detention of immigrants convicted of certain crimes. Gershengorn did not invoke the plenary-power doctrine, nor did he mention the extraordinary decision in Mezei, in which the court authorized the indefinite detention of an immigrant. Rather, the focus of his argument was that Congress had spoken on the issue of detention and "[t]he Ninth Circuit's decision is a serious misuse of the constitutional avoidance canon." In his view, the court of appeals rewrote the statutory provisions, rather than reasonably interpreting them to avoid constitutional questions.

Gershengorn ran into difficulty in grappling with questions about when a term of detention would be too long to satisfy due process concerns. He suggested that 20 years without a bond hearing would certainly be unconstitutional, but had a hard time explaining why a two-or three-year detention was not too long. (The mistaken statistical data about the average length of detention that the solicitor general's office had provided the court in Demore v. Kim came up in the argument, but was not a major bone of contention.) The acting solicitor general surprisingly suggested that delays in deciding removal cases were in part due to the "tremendous process to the individual alien" guaranteed by the statute, including counsel at no expense to the government. Sotomayor questioned whether lengthy detention could be appropriate without a finding that the immigrant was a flight risk or a danger to public safety.

Ahilan Arulanantham of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California argued the case for the detained immigrants. He defended the lower court injunction as an appropriate application of Zadvydas and its fashioning of a practical approach to avoiding significant constitutional problems. He contended that the 9th Circuit's requirement of a bond hearing every six months was appropriate in light of the fact that the USA PATRIOT Act requires bond hearings at such intervals for persons held for national-security reasons.

Arulanantham claimed that the availability of habeas-corpus review in individual cases was insufficient to address the constitutional concerns posed by prolonged detention. He pointed out that such cases on the average take 19 months to be processed by the courts - much too long a period, he argued, to be held in detention without judicial review. Much of the justices' questioning focused on whether the 9th Circuit had inappropriately relied on the doctrine of constitutional avoidance and whether the case should be remanded to the court of appeals to decide the constitutional questions. None of the justices appeared to buy the lower court's claim that the provision requiring detention of immigrants with certain criminal convictions could reasonably be interpreted to avoid those questions.

In sum, both sides in yesterday's argument had some explaining to do to the justices, who seemed troubled by two very different aspects of the case. On the one hand, as even the government seemed to concede, indefinite detention without a hearing is difficult to justify as a constitutional matter. At the same time, however, some justices worried that the 9th Circuit had acted more like a legislature than a court in fashioning the injunction requiring bond hearings every six months. Based on the argument, it may prove difficult for a majority of an eight-justice court to agree on a rationale for deciding the case.

November 23, 2016

Argument preview: The constitutionality of immigrant detention

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

In recent years, the U.S government has aggressively used detention of immigrants as a tool for enforcing the immigration laws. Immigration detention became national news in 2014 when the Obama administration detained tens of thousands of Central American women and children fleeing violence in their native lands.

In Jennings v. Rodriguez, the court will consider the question whether immigrants, like virtually any U.S. citizen placed in criminal or civil detention, must be guaranteed a bond hearing and possible release from custody. This case is a class-action challenge to lengthy immigration detentions without any opportunity for release on bond.

Brought to the United States as an infant, class representative Alejandro Rodriguez is a lawful permanent resident who had been employed as a dental assistant. Based on criminal convictions for possession of a controlled substance and "joyriding," the U.S. government sought to remove Rodriguez from the United States. While Rodriguez was resisting removal, the government detained him for more than three years without a bond hearing. An immigration court ultimately granted Rodriguez "cancellation of removal," and he remains in the United States.

Another class member, a torture victim from Ethiopia, sought asylum in the United States. The U.S. government detained him on the ground that his proof of identity was insufficient because, in the words of a Department of Homeland Security officer, "[t]here is an apparent correlation with all the Somalian Detainee's [sic] that present [sic] a paradigm of deceit and paralleled ambiguity of events and identity." A bond hearing would have allowed the class member to point out that, among other things, he was not from Somalia. An immigration court eventually granted asylum to this class member.

After Rodriguez and the other class members brought suit challenging the government's prolonged-detention practices, the district court entered an injunction requiring bond hearings for immigrant detainees. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed most of the injunction. Interpreting the immigrant-detention statutes to avoid constitutional problems, the appeals court held that immigration judges must provide a bond hearing to a class member at least every six months and that a noncitizen must be released from detention unless the government can establish by clear and convincing evidence that the noncitizen is a flight risk or a danger to public safety.

In the government's brief, the solicitor general defends the immigration-detention regime that is currently in place:

Some may believe that the Ninth Circuit's vision of immigration detention is wiser or more humane, while others would disagree. But Congress weighed the interests in controlling the border, protecting the public from criminal aliens, affording individual aliens adequate protections and opportunities for relief and review, and minimizing the adverse foreign-relations impact of U.S. immigration law. The canon of constitutional avoidance is not a tool for courts to comprehensively rewrite those laws and strike a different balance.

The government further contends that habeas-corpus review in individual cases satisfies any constitutional concerns stemming from prolonged detention.

In defending the detention of class members during removal proceedings, the United States relies heavily on the 2003 case Demore v. Kim, in which the court invoked the "plenary power" doctrine - something exceptional to immigration law - to immunize from judicial review a provision of the immigration statute requiring a "limited time of detention" for immigrants awaiting removal from the United States. Last summer, the solicitor general confessed to the court that its briefs in Demore included "several significant errors" and greatly understated the average length of immigrant detention, a misstatement that may have influenced the outcome of the case. In its briefing in Rodriguez, the government minimizes the impact of the statistical misstatements on the court's decision in Demore.

To justify the lengthy detention of noncitizens seeking admission into the country, the solicitor general again relies on the plenary-power doctrine, claiming that the 9th Circuit's ruling "conflicts with this Court's longstanding rule that the political Branches have plenary control over which aliens may physically enter the United States and under what circumstances." In support of this proposition, the government cites a case from 1953, Shaughnessy v. United States ex rel. Mezei. Decided at the height of the Cold War, Mezei denied judicial review to an immigrant held in indefinite detention based on secret evidence, an outcome next to impossible to square with modern constitutional law.

Defending the injunction, Rodriguez and the other respondents contend that due process requires a bond hearing to determine whether the noncitizen is a danger to the public or a flight risk. Rodriguez cites, among other cases, United States v. Salerno, a 1987 case upholding pretrial detention of criminal defendants only after individualized findings of dangerousness or flight risk at bond hearings; Foucha v. Louisiana, a 1992 case requiring individualized findings of mental illness and dangerousness prior to civil commitment; and Kansas v. Hendricks, a 1997 case upholding civil commitment of sex offenders after a jury trial. Responding to the government's contrary assertion, Rodriguez argues that habeas-corpus review is not constitutionally sufficient to satisfy the due process concerns implicated by mandatory prolonged detention.

In a letter, Rodriguez claims that the factual misstatements by the solicitor general in Demore v. Kim "limit its relevance," and that the court must therefore be circumspect about the unverified statistical data provided in the government's briefs in this case. Rodriguez's brief distinguishes Demore, which he claims creates a narrow exception to the rule that detention may be imposed only after a bond hearing. In Demore, he claims, the court relied on two circumstances not present in this case: the government's admittedly inaccurate assertion that the average length of detention was brief and the immigrant's admission of deportability. In contrast, detention of an immigrant who is fighting removal, as in Rodriguez's case, is not brief, but can last many years. Moreover, many class members, including Rodriguez, have defenses to removal, which gives them an incentive to appear for removal proceedings. Such individuals, Rodriguez asserts, cannot therefore be presumed to present a flight risk or a danger to the public. Rodriguez further contends that, as it did in Zadvydas v. Davis in 2001, the court should interpret an immigration statute to require judicial review of a detention decision because "[a] statute permitting indefinite detention of an alien would cause a serious constitutional problem."

Indefinite detention of a person absent a bond hearing generally is not constitutionally permissible. By holding that the immigration statute permitted a bond hearing at reasonable intervals and possible release from custody, the 9th Circuit sidestepped the serious constitutional concerns presented by the statute. Ultimately, the questions before the Supreme Court are whether the 9th Circuit reasonably construed the statute to avoid the constitutional issues and, if not, whether ordinary constitutional rules apply to immigrants in detention. In addressing those questions, Wednesday's oral argument will require the court to grapple with its seemingly inconsistent immigrant-detention decisions in Zadvydas v. Davis and Demore v. Kim.

November 2, 2016

Immigration in the Supreme Court, 2016 Term

Cross-posted from Immigration Prof Blog.

Jack Chin and I participated in a podcast on Bloomberg BNA. The topic: Immigration in the Supreme Court's upcoming term.

LISTEN HERE TO THE PODCAST: "IMMIGRATION EVOLUTION"

Cracks are beginning to show in the deference that courts usually give to Congress in the immigration arena.

Tougher immigration laws have spurred the courts to import constitutional norms into the field, once subject to Congress's plenary power.

Bloomberg BNA takes a look at how that change might affect two immigration cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this term.

If you liked what you heard, check out more Cases and Controversies podcasts at bna.com. Be sure to follow along with the Supreme Court's 2016 term by taking a free trial to United States Law Week.

Hosts:

Kimberly Robinson

Nicholas Datlowe

Bernard Pazanowski

Guests:

Jason A. Cade, University of Georgia School of Law, Athens, Ga.

Gabriel "Jack" Chin, University of California, Davis, School of Law, Davis, Calif.

Kevin R. Johnson, University of California, Davis, School of Law, Davis, Calif.

Jennifer Koh, Western State College of Law, Irvine, Calif.

Nancy Morawetz, New York University School of Law, New York

Hiroshi Motomura, UCLA School of Law, Los Angeles

Featured Cases/Stories:

Chinese Exclusion Act Case (Chae Chan Ping v. United States)

Kerry v. Din, transcript

Donald Trump Muslim Ban, video

July 5, 2016

United States v. Texas: The Supreme Court Punts, Returns the Political Question of Immigration Reform to Congress

By Kevin R. Johnson

[Crosspost from ImmigrationProf Blog]

A little over a week ago, an equally divided Supreme Court left intact a lower court injunction barring the implementation of a major immigration initiative of the Obama administration. The program and litigation had proven to be controversial. Not surprisingly, most of the voluminous commentary about the case has focused on the power of the President vis-à-vis Congress to regulate immigration, the plight of the undocumented immigrants who might have been eligible for temporary reprieve under the program, the role of the states in future immigration policies, and related issues.

It should not be surprising that little of the commentary has focused on the real legal issues before the Supreme Court. Raising legal issues that only a law professor could love, the case really is about something much deeper and much more important to the United States. The case is simply the latest skirmish in the long political debate over immigration reform. As seen with the recent Brexit vote – in which concerns with immigration contributed to passage of a referendum removing the United Kingdom from the European Union, American immigration politics – as historically has been the case -- can be messy, divisive, and heated.

With no success, Congress has debated comprehensive immigration reform bills for more than a decade. Some versions of the reform bills would have offered a path to legalization for the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Various incarnations of the DREAM Act would have provided relief to undocumented youth.

Because of the lengthy stalemate in Congress, President Barack Obama announced measured, limited, and temporary steps to address some of the issues facing this nation’s undocumented immigrants.

In November 2014, the Obama administration announced a “deferred action” program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) for the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. The program built on the previous Deferred Action Program for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was implemented in the summer of 2012. DACA provided limited and temporary relief to hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people and was viewed as a ray of hope at a time when improvements through congressional action looked bleak. DAPA would have provided similar relief to many more.

“Deferred action” is fancy language that means that the U.S. government will not focus on removing undocumented immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding. It is a kind of prosecutorial discretion routinely employed by government in the enforcement of the law. Deferred action is not a path to legalization or citizenship and should not be mistaken as some kind of “amnesty.” It instead is a temporary reprieve from removal, revocable at the will of the Executive Branch (and thus by a new President).

Nobody, including President Obama, disputes that only Congress could create a durable path to legalization or citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Although cloaked in the language of the law, the simple truth of the matter was that the Republican governor of Texas and 26 states did not agree with the Democratic administration’s policy choices. And, politically, they had little use for President Obama. They sued in federal court to put the immigration plan on hold and ultimately ended one of the Obama administration’s signature immigration measures. Fortunately, the Supreme Court with its even split did not create precedent that would allow the states in the future to pursue litigation for partisan political ends.

In the end, what began as a political question will return to the political arena after the Supreme Court’s non-decision in United States v. Texas. The question of immigration reform will return to Congress.

But even if the Supreme Court had upheld the administration’s immigration programs, Congress would still have needed – as it does now -- to address immigration reform. Deferred action does not offer permanent relief for the millions of undocumented immigrants like that which would be provided by many comprehensive immigration reform proposals. Indeed, a future president – a President Donald Trump, for example – might try to deport any and all deferred action recipients.

As the outcome of United States v. Texas should make clear, congressional action is necessary to reform the immigration laws. As most knowledgeable observers agree, the mass deportation of the millions of undocumented immigrants who are parts of our communities simply is not feasible. Consequently, some kind of path to legalization of undocumented immigrants is needed. Most informed observers further agree that reform of the legal immigration provisions of the laws is needed. Last but not least, many Americans believe that we need better enforcement measures All of these aspects of immigration reform raise thorny political questions that require careful deliberation and rational discourse..

In the end, the nation needs to think about how we achieve meaningful and lasting immigration reform that works.

June 29, 2016

Big Immigration Cases in the 2016 Term

The 2015 Term of the Supreme Court just ended.  Next Term. the Supreme Court will review two potentially significant immigration cases.  Both implicate significant doctrinal issues of immigration law that have perplexed the courts for many years.  The Solicitor General sought review of adverse lower court decisions in both cases.

The cases are:

Jennings v. Rodriguez, No. 15-1204

Issue(s): (1) Whether aliens seeking admission to the United States who are subject to mandatory detention under 8 U.S.C. § 1225(b) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release into the United States, if detention lasts six months; (2) whether criminal or terrorist aliens who are subject to mandatory detention under Section 1226(c) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release, if detention lasts six months; and (3) whether, in bond hearings for aliens detained for six months under Sections 1225(b), 1226(c), or 1226(a), the alien is entitled to release unless the government demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the alien is a flight risk or a danger to the community, whether the length of the alien's detention must be weighed in favor of release, and whether new bond hearings must be afforded automatically every six months.    

This immigration detention case will give the Court the chance to address immigrant detention, which has skyrocketed since 1996 immigration reforms.  The Obama administration has employed detention as an immigration enforcement tool and some immigrants have been held in detention indefinitely pending removal.  Because some nations have refused to accept some immigrants subject to removal, some immigrants have been indefinitely detained.  The circuits are split and the Supreme Court has decided a number of immigrant detention cases (Zadvydas v. Davis (2001) and Demore v. Kim (2003) in somewhat inconsistent fashion in the post-1996 era.  Indefinite detention without bond possibilities are unheard of with respect to criminal defendants.  The lower courts have reached different conclusions on immigrant detention issues.

Lynch v. Morales-Santana, No. 15-1191

Issue(s): (1) Whether Congress's decision to impose a different physical-presence requirement on unwed citizen mothers of foreign-born children than on other citizen parents of foreign-born children through 8 U.S.C. 1401 and 1409 (1958) violates the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection; and (2) whether the court of appeals erred in conferring U.S. citizenship on respondent, in the absence of any express statutory authority to do so.    The Second Circuit agreed with Morales-Santana that the gender distinctions in the derivative citizenship provisions was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has been sharply divided on the lawfulness of gender distinctions in the laws granting citizenship to children.  See, for example, Flores-Villar v. United States (2011) and Nguyen v. INS (2001).  Besides the issue of gender stereotypes, Morales-Santana implicates the venerable plenary power doctrine , which historically has shielded the immigration laws from judicial review.  Although there have been "cracks" in the doctrine, it remains largely intact.

June 20, 2016

Breaking News: Supreme Court to Review Immigrant Detention Case

The Supreme Court did not decide United States v. Texas today.  It did grant certiorari in Jennings v. Rodriguez. (Download Jennings here.)

The issues in that case are 

(1) Whether aliens seeking admission to the United States who are subject to mandatory detention under 8 U.S.C. § 1225(b) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release into the United States, if detention lasts six months;

(2) whether criminal or terrorist aliens who are subject to mandatory detention under Section 1226(c) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release, if detention lasts six months; and

(3) whether, in bond hearings for aliens detained for six months under Sections 1225(b), 1226(c), or 1226(a), the alien is entitled to release unless the government demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the alien is a flight risk or a danger to the community, whether the length of the alien's detention must be weighed in favor of release, and whether new bond hearings must be afforded automatically every six months.

The Ninth Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Wardlaw, affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's order granting summary judgment and a permanent injunction in a class action lawsuit by non-citizens within the Central District of California challenging their prolonged detentions under civil immigration detention statutes 8 U.S.C. §§ 1225(b), 1226(a), 1226(c), and 1231(a) without individualized bond hearings or determinations to justify continued detention.  The panel affirmed the district court's permanent injunction insofar as it required automatic bond hearings and required Immigration Judges to consider alternatives to detention. The panel also held that IJs must consider the length of detention and provide bond hearings every six months for class members detained longer than twelve months, but rejected the class's request for additional procedural requirements.

The panel held that subclass members subject to prolonged detention under mandatory detention statutes §§ 1225(b) and 1226(c) are entitled to bond hearings, and that subclass members subject to discretionary detention under § 1226(a) are entitled to automatic bond hearings after six months of detention. In an issue this court had not previously addressed, the panel held that the government must provide periodic bond hearings every six months.  

The Solicitor General in seeking review argued that

"The court of appeals' ruling also solidifies an acknowledged split of authority among the circuit courts of appeals. See Lora v. Shanahan, 804 F.3d 601, 614 (2d Cir. 2015) (describing the split and collecting citations). The Second Circuit has recently chosen to "follow the Ninth Circuit" and adopted the "bright-line approach," requiring bond hearings by the six-month mark for aliens detained under Section 1226(c). Lora, 804 F.3d at 615-616.6 By contrast, the Third and Sixth Circuits, while taking the position that detention without a bond hearing under Section 1226(c) is limited to a "reasonable" time, have squarely rejected the rigid six-month rule and instead assess reasonableness based on a case-specific balancing inquiry. See Ly, 351 F.3d at 271-273 (rejecting a ''bright-line time limitation"); Diop v. ICE/Homeland Sec., 656 F.3d 221, 233 (3d Cir. 2011) ("We decline to establish a universal point at which detention will always be considered unreasonable."); see also Leslie v. Attorney Gen. of U.S., 678 F.3d 265, 269 (3d Cir. 2012) (discussing "[t]he fact-dependent inquiry"); Chavez-Alvarez, 783 F.3d at 474 ("By its very nature, the use of a balancing framework makes any determination on reasonableness highly fact-specific.")."

June 19, 2016

Case Western Reserve Law Review Symposium on Whren

The Case Western Reserve Law Review published its symposium on the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Whren v. United States.

My contribution is included. Here is the link for "Doubling Down on Racial Discrimination: The Racially Disparate Impacts of Crime-Based Removals."

June 2, 2016

Debate on United States v. Texas for PublicSquare.net

I recently joined PublicSquare.net for a debate on its program Scholars Mate. The topic was U.S. v. Texas, a major Supreme Court case involving immigration and executive power.

Here is the video. Thanks to PublicSquare.net for the opportunity!

May 6, 2016

Justice Stevens Discusses Scholarship by Professor Chin

In a recent speech, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens discussed Professor Gabriel "Jack" Chin's paper Effective Assistance of Counsel and the Consequences of Guilty Pleas

Justice Stevens relied on the paper in his majority opinion in Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), which held that criminal defense attorneys were required to advise clients about the possibility of deportation.  As Justice Stevens noted, the Court also relied on Professor Chin's work in Chaidez v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 1103 (2013), holding that Padilla would not be retroactively applied to cases which were already final when it was decided.

May 4, 2016

Zubik v. Burwell: Women and Religion in the Market

Cross-posted from JURIST.

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell on March 23, 2016, six years to the day the Affordable Care Act (ACA) became law. The petitioners, a group of religious organizations, have challenged the ACA's contraceptive coverage requirement. The challenge is a free exercise claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) [PDF], a federal statute. The court has now heard four challenges to the ACA.

The contraceptive coverage requirement is part of a broader provision that requires coverage for preventive health care without cost-sharing. This provision serves the ACA goals of improving health care access and reducing health care disparities among populations. Even small co-pays create barriers to health care. The ACA emphasizes the importance of preventive health care by removing that barrier.

Cost-sharing mechanisms like co-pays reflect the fact that health care services are delivered in a commercial market. The ACA coverage requirement applies to FDA-approved contraceptives. Prices for drugs and devices in the US are among the highest in the world. Contraceptives are distributed within that market. Recent stories about the role of profit-motive in pharmaceutical pricing highlight new cancer drugs and Hepatitis C drugs that cost several hundred thousand dollars a year. Plain old oral contraception, the most widely used contraceptive, can cost close to $1,000 per year for those without insurance coverage. Intrauterine devices, a type of long-acting reversible contraception, typically cost $500 to $1,000. Those amounts are less than 1 percent of the highlighted examples, but they are a great deal more than many can afford. Because most FDA-approved methods are available on a prescription-only basis, obtaining contraception also requires the time and cost of visiting a doctor. Oregon and California have enacted law making some contraceptives (the pill, the ring and the patch) available over-the-counter, with a pharmacist prescription. Those laws make the doctor's visit, and the accompanying costs, unnecessary for most. People without coverage, however, will still face out-of-pocket costs for the contraceptives.

The contraceptive coverage requirement applies to employers who provide health insurance as a benefit. The Zubik petitioners are religious organizations who hire employees and run colleges. Their employees and students rely on petitioners for health insurance access, but do not all share the petitioners' religious objections to contraceptive use. The ACA provides accommodation for religious employers, which removes petitioners from the responsibility of paying for coverage and yet makes coverage available to employees and students. Petitioners, however, claim that submitting the one-page form to obtain the accommodation makes them complicit in providing contraceptives.

The arguments were fascinating. You can listen to or read [PDF] them. RFRA requires that petitioners show the contraceptive coverage requirement imposes a substantial burden on free exercise of religion. If petitioners can do that, the government must justify the burden by showing that the contraceptive coverage requirement is based on a compelling state interest and that there is no less restrictive means of achieving that interest. The justices and lawyers spent much of oral argument addressing the substantial burden requirement. In an exchange with Justice Kagan, Paul Clement, representing petitioners, distinguished between an authorization form and an opt-out form. Clement seemed to suggest that an opt-out form would not make petitioners complicit, while an authorization form would, and thus, substantially burden free exercise. Much of the substantial burden argument turned into a battle of analogies. Noel Francisco, also representing petitioners, characterized the coverage requirement as "seizing control." The most bandied-about analogy was "hijacking"-as in, by requiring contraceptive coverage, the government is hijacking the religious employers' benefit plans. Chief Justice Roberts fully embraced the hijacking analogy. In the meantime, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan challenged Clement on petitioners' analogy to military objectors during war. Clement agreed that laws penalizing conscientious objectors substantially burdened objectors' free exercise, but asserted the objectors had to affirmatively object, while petitioners should not have to in order to obtain accommodation.

Donald Verrilli represented the US government in arguments. (Because he is the US Solicitor General, the justices call him "General Verrilli.") He argued that the procedure for obtaining an accommodation would not substantially burden petitioners' free exercise of religion. He and Justice Alito spent some time in the weeds about the fact that employers with self-insured plans must submit not one, but two pieces of paper. The existing accommodation exempts religious employers from paying for contraceptives regardless of whether the plan is fully insured or self-insured. So the only difference is, in fact, the extra piece of paper.

Verrilli marshaled his time to address petitioners' proposed alternatives to the existing accommodation. Petitioners' briefs proposed that rather than obtaining contraceptive coverage through employer-sponsored or student insurance, employees and students could use Medicare, Medicaid, Title X, contraception-only insurance policies or individual policies purchased in the insurance marketplaces. Some of these proposals do not exist. For example, insurers do not offer contraception-only policies. Even if available, a separate policy might very well offer a different provider network than a petitioner's plan. All of the proposals, including individual policies, would raise barriers to access and undermine the purpose of requiring preventive care coverage without cost-sharing. None, as Verrilli pointed out, are available under existing law. Access to Medicare, Medicaid, Title X and the marketplaces would require significant amendment of eligibility laws.

Near the end of Verrilli's allotted time for argument, Sotomayor returned to the conscientious objector analogy. She distinguished conscientious objectors in wartime from the Zubik petitioners' challenge to the accommodation. In Sotomayor's view, conscientious objectors do not trigger regulatory power over third parties, but the effects of Zubik petitioners' request would rebound on petitioners' employees and students. Sotomayor's distinction points to the origins of the RFRA. Congress enacted RFRA in response to a 1989 Supreme Court decision called Employment Division v. Smith. The late Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, in which the court stated that the Constitution's Free Exercise Clause did not excuse an individual from complying with a generally applicable law. In other words, the Constitution does not require accommodation for those whose religious beliefs place them in conflict with the law. Scalia's opinion listed examples-laws requiring military service, payment of taxes and vaccination. RFRA passed with bi-partisan support. Many supporters worried that the Supreme Court had peeled back protection for members of minority religions whose beliefs are more likely to differ from majoritarian norms underlying law. In Smith, for example, the court rejected free exercise claims by two Native Americans who were fired and denied unemployment benefits after using peyote in a religious ceremony. Before Smith, the court had recognized free exercise claims by a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who was fired for refusing to work on Saturday, the Adventist Sabbath. In those two cases, exempting the religious claimants from state unemployment compensation laws did not interfere with others' rights. Exemption may have inconvenienced the state unemployment office, but it did not produce interference with third party rights.

With Scalia's death, it seems very likely the eight justices may split. Questions and statements in oral argument, as well as prior votes, indicate that Roberts, Alito, Thomas and perhaps Kennedy will hold that the existing accommodation violates petitioners' statutory rights under RFRA. Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor, on the other hand, seem likely to find no violation.

In the meantime, the court has taken an unusual step. On March 29, the court issued an order [PDF] directing the parties to file additional briefs. The briefs are to address "whether and how contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners' employees through petitioners' insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees." The Order includes an example for the parties to consider. What if petitioners contracted with an insurer and informed the insurer that they did not want to include contraceptive coverage and the insurer notified employees that it would "provide cost-free contraceptive coverage and that such coverage is not paid for by petitioners and is not provided through petitioners' health plan." The example echoes a hypothetical that Clement and Francisco used in arguments. They posited an "uber-insurance policy" that provides contraceptive coverage to all women in the US, as a counterpoint to the alleged hijacked plans offered by petitioners to employees and students. In essence, they described a private single-payer plan for contraception. Both the court's example and the uber-policy scenario rely on the fictional existence of contraceptive-only plans. Even if petitioners and five justices will this type of plan into existence, it would require significant government intervention in the market, as well as two forms of insurance and the possibility of two different provider networks for petitioners' employees and students.

The order and the question it poses signals what the vote will hinge on. More specifically, it indicates Kennedy's attentiveness to the complicity concerns and the fact that RFRA does not permit religious claimants to hijack the government's administrative and regulatory systems to implement an accommodation. The court may split along other lines, as well. Ginsburg asked whether religious organizations should necessarily receive the same protection under RFRA as a church. Kennedy asked whether a church organization should be treated the same as a university. As noted, petitioners consist of both church-affiliated organizations and religious universities. The questions suggest that universities may be less likely to receive accommodations that impose burdens on third parties. On the other hand, Ginsburg and Kennedy's questions may just have been aimed at Francisco's sweeping assertions about the RFRA's scope of protection for free exercise.

What should be notable is that because the parties to the case are religious employers and the federal government, people who use contraceptives-mostly women, are positioned as third parties. Yet, the so-called third parties have a significant stake in this case: health, autonomy and equality. When you set aside the analogies and hypotheticals, the case positions women between the privatization of health care and the religious beliefs of others.