The Supreme Court Takes Up Obamacare Again

The U.S. flag flies in front of the West Front of the Supreme Court Building on August 7, 2009 in Washington, D.C. Judge Sonia Sotomayor will be sworn in as the 111th justice of the Supreme Court on Saturday. (National Journal)

The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to wade into another heated Obamacare case — and opened the door to a new round of "war on women" attacks ahead of the 2014 midterms.

The justices agreed to hear a challenge to the health care law's contraception mandate, which requires most employers to include contraception in their employees' health insurance policies without charging a co-pay or deductible.

A ruling would likely come in June — just months ahead of midterm elections that could determine which party controls the Senate and thus the confirmation process for new Supreme Court nominees.

The politics of the contraception mandate have so far benefited Democrats. During the 2012 race, President Obama made the policy the centerpiece of his defense of the unpopular health care law. And Democrats were able to wrap GOP criticism of the policy into a larger narrative that Republican Senate candidates were waging a "war on women."

"We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women's health and are confident the Supreme Court will agree," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Tuesday.

But there are good reasons for the White House and Democrats to worry about how the Court will rule.

Three federal Appeals Courts have ruled at least partially against the contraception mandate, saying it infringes on the religious liberties of corporations or their owners — or both.

Two federal Appeals Courts have dismissed challenges on procedural grounds, saying corporations cannot exercise religion and that owners cannot personally stand in for their businesses. But when cases have cleared that bar and moved ahead to the substantive question of whether the mandate is an infringement on religious liberty, the Justice Department has fared poorly.

The Supreme Court accepted two suits today — one filed by Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores, and the other by Conestoga, a cabinet-making firm. By combining the two cases, the justices ensured they will have an opening to rule broadly on the mandate, and on the bigger questions of whether corporations can exercise religion.

In Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the company could sue over the birth-control requirement. Citing the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling on campaign finance laws, the judges said that corporations (and not just the people who own them) can exercise First Amendment rights.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, on the other hand, dismissed Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. That court ruled that a for-profit corporation could not exercise religious beliefs and therefore could not sue. And the owners couldn't sue because they personally weren't subject to the contraception mandate.

The Obama administration wanted the Supreme Court to hear the Hobby Lobby case, but not Conestoga's appeal.

If the justices had taken only Hobby Lobby's case, they might not have been able to decide whether the owners of a company can sue even when the corporation itself cannot. Because the lower court allowed Hobby Lobby to challenge the mandate as a corporation, it didn't bother with questions about the firm's owners. Taking both appeals allows the high court to address both questions.

Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled. The Court does not elaborate on why it takes certain cases, although it was all but guaranteed to hear the contraception challenge.