Sotomayor issues temporary injunction against HHS contraception mandate

It’s not much of an injunction, but it’s enough to put a stop to its enforcement for a couple of days, at least. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Barack Obama appointee to the high court, issued the order just hours before the mandate would have gone into effect (via Frank Weathers at Patheos):

Only hours before the law was to take effect, a Supreme Court justice on Tuesday blocked implementation of part of President Barack Obama’s health care law that would have forced some religion-affiliated organizations to provide health insurance for employees that includes birth control coverage.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s decision came after a different effort by Catholic-affiliated groups from around the U.S. Those groups had rushed to the federal courts to stop Wednesday’s start of portions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Sotomayor acted on a request from an organization of Catholic nuns in Denver, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. Its request for an emergency stay had been denied earlier in the day by a federal appeals court.

The government is “temporarily enjoined from enforcing against applicants the contraceptive coverage requirements imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Sotomayor said in the order. She gave government officials until 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) Friday to respond to her order.

In other words, this order could get lifted almost as soon as it was imposed, assuming that HHS responds in time — and they will. Sotomayor could also leave the injunction in place until the court has a chance to hear all sides, which would take months but is inevitable anyway. The Obama administration will have a difficult time explaining how a delay would hurt its interests more than those who are being forced to choose between compliance and their religious beliefs, but they have occasionally succeeded at doing so.

Would Sotomayor take much convincing on that point? I would have doubted it, but before yesterday I would have doubted that Sotomayor would have issued this injunction, even for a couple of days.  It’s worth noting, though, that Sotomayor’s isn’t the only injunction in place:

Sotomayor’s decision to delay the contraceptive portion of the law was joined by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which also issued an emergency stay for Catholic-affiliated groups challenging the contraceptive provision.

Even if Sotomayor rescinds the injunction later this week, the lower court’s injunction might remain in place. The DC Circuit has jurisdiction over the operations of the federal government, which would effectively stymie HHS from enforcing the mandate anywhere, at least theoretically.

Everyone knew that the HHS mandate would end up at the Supreme Court. It has now arrived there, and I would assume that the rest of the court will be anxious to settle the matter so that the patchwork of decisions from lower courts can be resolved permanently.

Update: Doug Mataconis offers his analysis:

I’m not sure that you can draw any conclusions about either how the stay might ultimately be handled by Justice Sotomayor, or the full Court, from this action. In some respects, granting the stay in this particular case is likely the most ideal solution until the Court can hear opposing arguments on a more permanent stay via the Federal Government’s briefs. Nor would I draw any particular conclusions about the fact that it was Justice Sotomayor who issued the temporary stay. I suspect that the main reason she granted the stay was simply for the purposes of maintaining the status quo until she, or the full Court, can rule on the matter. That said, if the Supreme Court does ultimately grant a stay pending appeal in this case, then it could be an indication that there is a sufficient majority on the Supreme Court skeptical of the mandate under both the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to potentially strike down the mandate at some point in the future. In the end, though, that too would still be pure guess work.

There were a number of rulings yesterday on the contraception mandate, which Doug runs down well. He also notes that the Supreme Court already has one HHS contraception mandate on the docket for 2014, and might end up consolidating all of these issues into one decision around June.