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With election-year implications, Supreme Court punts on ACA case

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, the future of the ACA will remain in legal limbo until after Election Day 2020.


There was a real possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would put the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act on a fast track, setting the stage for a major ruling ahead of this year's presidential election. As NBC News reported this morning, however, the justices punted the case, which is a move with considerable political implications.

Tuesday's brief Supreme Court order does not indicate whether the court intends to hear the case, after the normal time for the opposing sides to submit their legal briefs, or allow it to continue working its way through the lower court appeals.

But even if the justices do decide to take it up, the case would not be heard until the court's next term, which begins in October and any decision would not come until after Election Day on Nov. 3.

For those who may need a refresher, at issue is a lawsuit from state Republican officials -- with the enthusiastic support of the Trump administration -- who are arguing that "Obamacare" must be torn down in its entirety because Congress gutted the ACA's individual mandate in late 2017. By Republicans' reasoning, this provision was so integral to the reform law that the nation's health care system can't function without it.

Their argument, of course, is belied by the fact that the Affordable Care Act appears to be working just fine, even after federal GOP lawmakers effectively scrapped it more than two years ago.

Nevertheless, a Texas judge ruled in Republicans' favor in 2018, insisting that the entire law, its benefits, and its protections must cease to be. The 5th Circuit, in a move that appeared awfully political, recently left the future of the nation's health care system in limbo, sending the case back to the district court, urging the conservative jurist to see if any elements of the law could be salvaged.

The ACA's proponents asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, and earlier this month, the justices directed the Trump administration and Republican state officials behind the lawsuit to respond.

As NBC News' Pete Williams explained at the time, "Such a highly abbreviated timeline -- the rules normally allow a month for filing a response -- gives the court the option to take up the case during its current term, which would mean a ruling on a contentious issue this spring, just as the presidential campaign heats up."

Today, the justices effectively closed that door, delaying any future consideration.

For Republicans, this was probably the ideal political outcome. If the high court heard the appeal and ruled in the ACA's favor before voters went to the polls, it would've handed Donald Trump and his allies an embarrassing election-year defeat. If the high court heard the case and tore down the nation's health care system, it would've been even worse for Trump, as tens of millions of families came to terms with the loss of coverage, protections, and related benefits thanks to a lawsuit the White House championed.

No can say with certainty how the case will eventually be resolved, but in light of this morning's announcement, the answer will come after Election Day, not before.

MORE: Today's Maddowblog