In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued substantive decisions in four cases that NASW applauded
due to the significance of the rulings in the advancement of NASW supported public policies and social
justice. This Legal Issue of the Month article reviews the cases and the Court’s decisions from a social
work perspective and from the NASW policy statements that support each case.
Social Workers and the Recent Decisions
of the Supreme Court
By Elizabeth M. Felton, JD, LICSW, Associate Counsel
and Carolyn I. Polowy, JD, General Counsel
© June 2015. National Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
In June 2015, the U. S. Supreme Court issued substantive decisions in four cases that the
National Association of Social Workers (NASW) applauded due to the rulings’ significance to the
advancement of public policies and social justice. These landmark decisions by the Court will
likely have a deep impact on several aspects of the lives of millions of Americans. This Legal Issue of
the Month will review the cases and the Court’s decisions from a social workers’ perspective and the
NASW policy statements that support each case.
King v. Burwell (576 U.S. 14-114)
In King v. Burwell, the U.S. Supreme Court made a monumental decision on a challenge to
the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
a 6-3 ruling, the Court dismissed the contention that providing subsidies to low income individuals to
purchase health care through the ACA was improper due to the lack of specific authorization in the
wording of the law. As a result of this decision,
the Supreme Court has upheld one of the key
provisions of the ACA permitting it to remain a viable program for access to health care coverage in
In 2010, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to increase the number of Americans covered
by health insurance, expand the eligibility for Medicaid, decrease the cost of health care, and reduce
the number of uninsured by providing for the establishment of “marketplaces” (also known as “exchanges”)
that offer qualified health plans and administer premium subsidies to make health care coverage
The law gives states the
option to establish their own marketplaces
through which people could purchase
health care coverage
. If states did not elect to establish their own marketplace, the
federal government would establish one for them as a default so that marketplaces are available in
The ACA also required people to obtain the minimum level of
health coverage or pay a tax penalty unless they fell within an exemption for low-income individuals. To
limit the number of people who were exempt from the tax, the ACA provided tax credits to help low and
middle income individuals afford their health insurance premiums in states that did not set up their own
health insurance marketplace. In implementing the ACA, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) created a
regulation that made the tax credits available to those enrolled in both state and federally-run
marketplaces although the specific language of the ACA only referred to marketplaces established by the
The petitioners in
asserted that Congress only intended for residents of
state-based marketplaces to receive premium tax credits, not those who use federally-facilitated
the IRS regulation that allows tax credits for those enrolled in plans
through federally-run marketplaces was contrary to the language of the ACA, in that, it was not one
“established by the State,” and, therefore, the IRS exceeded the authority delegated to it by
Congress to make rules implementing the ACA.
The respondents in King v. Burwell were federal
agencies responsible for implementing the ACA and they wanted the Court to uphold the IRS’s regulation
that allows the availability of subsidies in states with a federally-run marketplace. The federal
government argued that the IRS rule is consistent with the language of the ACA because a marketplace
“established by the State” also means one established by Health and Human Service (HHS) standing in as a
surrogate for the state. The government also argued that from reading the statute in its entirety, it is
clear that Congress intended subsidies to be available to people in all states, regardless of whether
the state has established its own marketplace.
The Court’s decision in King v. Burwell was a major victory for those who advocate for
access to health care for all Americans.
If the Court ruled otherwise, tax credits from
residents in all of the states with federally facilitated marketplaces would have been taken away. It
was estimated that 8 million people would not have been able to afford to pay their monthly health
insurance premiums and would likely
become uninsured because they could not afford the
unsubsidized cost. NASW supports efforts to increase health care coverage to uninsured and
underinsured, as well as efforts to eliminate racial, ethnic and economic disparities in health
services access, provision and outcomes.
 NASW joins other healthcare
advocates across the nation in a collective sigh of relief that the Supreme Court has upheld one of
the key provisions of the ACA permitting it to remain a viable program for access to health care
coverage in the U.S.
Obergefell, et al, v. Hodges, et al, (576 U.S. 14-556)
In a 5-4 vote in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth
Amendment requires the states to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize
lawfully licensed out-of-state marriages. The ruling will benefit thousands of same-sex couples living
in states currently denying equal access to marriage for same-sex couples.
Same-sex couples in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee sued their respective state
agencies to challenge the constitutionality of those states’ bans on same-sex marriages or refusal to
recognize legal same-sex marriages in other jurisdictions. They argued that those state statutes
violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
 The ruling
Obergefell v. Hodges was decided two years to the day of the decision in U.S. v
, the landmark civil rights case that ruled section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act
(DOMA) was unconstitutional. DOMA, enacted in 1996, barred same sex couples from being recognized as
spouses for purposes of federal laws.
The Court’s decision offers same-sex couples and their families the same recognition and
benefits as married heterosexual couples. NASW has long been a supporter of same-sex marriage and
advocated for expanded federal law that legalized and recognized marriage of same-sex couples.
joined the American Psychological Association and other organizations in the
Obergefell v. Hodges
amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court urging the justices to make the historic decision that
was issued in this case. In that brief, NASW and the other groups argued that same-sex attraction is a
normal part of human sexuality and the same-sex couples form committed relationships and are just as
capable of raising children. The brief also argued that conferring marriage rights on same-sex couples
also offers them social, psychological and health benefits. For more information about the amicus brief,
Ohio v. Clark (576 U.S. 13-1352)
In Ohio v. Clark, the Court ruled in a 9-0 decision that a child’s statement to his
teacher, a mandated reported, was admissible in trial and did not violate the Confrontation Clause even
though the child did not testify. The Confrontation Clause is the defendant’s right to confront and
cross examine his accuser.
purpose of the Confrontation Clause is to prevent government abuses and it does not apply to statements
made to private parties without police involvement.
In this case, a three year old child made statements to a pre-school teacher about his
physical injuries implicating the defendant as his abuser. The child was considered incompetent to
testify at trial due to his young age because in Ohio, children under age 10 generally do not testify.
Although the child did not testify at trial, the teacher testified that the child identified the
defendant as the abuser. The defendant argued that admitting the child’s earlier statement to the
teacher during the trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to cross examine the child under the
Confrontation Clause since the child did not testify.
The defendant argued that the child’s statement to the teacher was inadmissible and had a
testimonial purpose similar to a police interrogation since the teacher, as a mandated reporter, was
acting like a law enforcement agent gathering evidence for the state. The state argued that the child’s
statement to the teacher was non-testimonial, admissible and it did not violate the Confrontation Clause
since the teacher was primarily concerned with protecting the child and preventing further abuse.
The trial court convicted the defendant and sentenced him to 28 years in prison. The mid level
appellate court reversed the conviction and the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s
decision to exclude the child’s statement to the mandated reporter as a violation of the defendant’s
Sixth Amendment right under the Confrontation Clause. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Ohio Supreme
Court’s decision and upheld the admission of a child’s comments to a mandated reporter.
The Court’s decision is a victory for teachers, social workers, child welfare advocates, and
advocates for victims of abuse in that it protects children and improves the state’s ability to
prosecute and convict individuals who abuse children since the reliable statements of abused children
can be used at trial. If the Court ruled otherwise, the prosecution of child abuse cases and the
protection of at risk and abused children would have been more difficult. This decision recognizes
teachers as protectors of children and that the primary purpose of the child abuse reporting statute is
to protect abused and neglected children. NASW supports the creation and enforcement of laws that
protect child witnesses and efforts that highlight the significance of child abuse and neglect issues
and the related legal requirements of reporting systems.
Texas v. Inclusion Communities Project (576
Texas v. The Inclusive Communities Project is a housing discrimination
case where the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the Fair Housing Act of 1968
prohibits housing decisions that have a disparate impact regardless of intent. The Court ruled in a 5-4
decision that the FHA recognizes disparate impact claims and the law allows plaintiffs to challenge
government or private policies that have a discriminatory effect, without having to show evidence of
intentional discrimination. Other evidence can be used to show that practices have discriminatory
effects without proving that they are the result of discriminatory intentions.
Title VIII of the Civil Right Act of 1968, referred to as the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA),
prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, family status, national origin, or
Disparate impact is a legal doctrine under the Fair Housing Act which states that a policy may be
considered discriminatory if it has a disproportionate “adverse impact” against any group based on race,
national origin, color, religion, sex, familial status, or disability when there is no legitimate,
non-discriminatory business need for the policy.
Disparate impact focuses on the effects or
consequences of an action rather than the intent behind it. In a disparate impact case, a person
can challenge practices that have a “
disproportionately adverse effect” on those protected by
the Fair Housing Act and are “
unjustified by a legitimate rationale.
” The disparate impact provision under
the FHA is a critical legal protection against housing discrimination and has played a key role in
promoting racial equality in housing and fighting discrimination.
In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Community Project,
., the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a Texas non-profit housing organization that
favors racially integrated housing, claimed that a state agency violated the FHA by allocating a
disproportionate number of federal low-income housing tax credits in predominantly black inner-city
areas, rather than in predominately white suburban neighborhoods. They argued that approach, even if was
not designed to segregate the races, had that effect and was therefore the “functional equivalent” of
intentional racial segregation and thus violated the Fair Housing Act. The group sued under the
fair-housing law, which makes it illegal to refuse to sell, rent “or otherwise make unavailable” housing
to anyone because of race, sex or other protected categories.
The state agency countered that the law did not authorize “disparate impact” lawsuits. They
claimed that they were just trying to comply with federal mandates governing the use of tax credits, and
that, since it was not intentionally discriminating, it was not running afoul of the FHA. The Supreme
Court disagreed. The Court placed the Fair Housing Act in the context of other civil rights laws that
the court has found to prohibit racially disparate impacts, even if a challenged policy appears
race-neutral. The Court said, “These unlawful practices include zoning laws and other housing
restrictions that function unfairly to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods without any
sufficient justification.” With this statement, the Court recognizes that housing discrimination
continues to occur in America and there is a continued need for protection under the Fair Housing
Act. The Court acknowledged “the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the Nation toward a
more integrated society.”
Court recognized that
disparate impact claims play an important role in uncovering discriminatory
intent and unconscious biases that may block the purpose of the goals of the FHA and
liability was consistent with its purpose of ending segregated housing patterns and
moving our nation towards a more integrated society.
NASW remains a staunch advocate for preserving legal protections against all forms of
agreed with the Court’s statement that “much progress remains to be made in our Nation’s continuing
struggle against racial isolation.”
The recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 are far reaching and have significantly
contributed to the advancement of public policies and social justice by increasing access to affordable
health care insurance for millions of Americans, clearing the way for same sex couples to marry in all
50 states, protecting children from abuse, and preserving a valuable tool to eliminate housing
discrimination. These landmark rulings will be challenged in the future so advocacy efforts at the local
and national level must be continued to preserve and advance the gains that have been achieved with
these favorable outcomes.
An Alliance for Health Reform Toolkit, “To Subsidize of Not to Subsidize: King v. Burwell,”
June 2015 Available online at:
Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Pub.L.104-199 (1996)
Musumeci, MaryBeth, “Are Premium Subsidies Available in States with a Federally-run
Marketplace? A Guide to the Supreme Court Argument in King v. Burwell,” Kaiser Family Foundation,
February 25, 2015 Available online at:
King v. Burwell (576 U.S. 14-114) (2015)
Obergefell, et al v. Hodges, et al (576 U.S. 14-556) (2015)
Ohio v. Clark (576 U.S. 13-1352)
Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Pub.L. 111-148 (2010)
Texas v. Inclusion Communities Project (576 U.S.13-1371) (2015)
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act), Pub.L. 90-284 (1968)
U.S. Constitution Sixth Amendment – Confrontation Clause
U.S. v. Windsor (570 U.S. 12-307) (2013)
National Fair Housing Alliance – Disparate Impact
NASW Policy Statement: Health Care, in Social Work Speaks 146, 149 (10th ed. 2015)
NASW Policy Statement: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues, in Social Work Speaks 198, 203
(10th ed. 2015).
NASW Policy Statement: Child Abuse and Neglect, in Social Work Speaks 32, 36 (10th ed.
NASW Policy Statement: Racism, in Social Work Speaks 254, 258 (10th ed. 2015)
 Patient Protection and Affordable Care
Act (PPACA), Pub.L. 111-148 (2010)
 Musumeci, MaryBeth, “Are Premium
Subsidies Available in States with a Federally-run Marketplace? A Guide to the Supreme Court Argument in
King v. Burwell,” Kaiser Family Foundation, February 25, 2015
 King v. Burwell (576 U.S.
 NASW Policy Statement: Health Care, in
Social Work Speaks 146, 149 (10th ed. 2015)
 Obergefell et al v. Hodges et al
(576 U.S. 14-556) (2015)
 NASW Policy Statement: Lesbian, Gay,
and Bisexual Issues, in Social Work Speaks 198, 203 (10th ed. 2015).
 U.S. Constitution Sixth Amendment –
 Ohio v. Clark
(576 U.S. 13-1352) (2015)
 NASW Policy Statement: Child Abuse and
Neglect, in Social Work Speaks 32, 36 (10th ed. 2015)
 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of
1968 (Fair Housing Act) Pub.L. 90-284 (1968)
 National Fair Housing Alliance –
 Texas v. Inclusion Communities
(576 U.S.13-1371) (2015)
 NASW Policy Statement: Racism, in
Social Work Speaks 254, 258 (10th ed. 2015)