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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Carter: Historic Court

While each of the 75 or so cases the U.S. Court hears each year are important, it isn't every term that the fate of so many Americans rests on two court decisions of such enormous import.

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court was faced with the question of whether the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that states issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and whether same sex marriages from one state must be recognized in other states.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy explained that "[t]he generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions... they entrusted to future generations a character protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning."

From this, the Court held on a 5-4 vote that the 14th Amendment requires states to license same-sex marriages and to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed out of state. While many states already allow same-sex marriage, this historic ruling means that from this day forth, the right of same-sex couples to marry may not be infringed by any states.

In King v. Burwell, the Court took a second look at the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. This time around, the Court was faced with the narrow question of whether federal funds - or subsidies provided to individuals to defray the costs of health insurance - are available to citizens of the 36 states using the federal government's health insurance exchange.

One provision of the law implies that these subsidies are only available to individuals purchasing health insurance through an exchange established by "a state." The law's opponents argued that this language prohibits subsidies to millions of Americans who purchased insurance through the federal exchange.

The Government countered that because Congress' intent was to improve the healthcare market it was illogical to interpret the law so as to provide subsidies only to individuals from states with their own insurance exchanges. The Court agreed, concluding that a narrow interpretation of the law's applicability would wreak havoc in the health insurance market - an outcome the Court believed congress could not have intended. Thus, once again, the Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act.

There are several other important cases to be handed down this term, but with these two decisions the Court has already left its mark on the lives of most Americans – as well as the pages of history.

Jared Carter teaches legal activism, legal writing and appellate advocacy at Vermont Law School. He also directs the Vermont Community Law Center, a non-profit legal services organization focused on social justice, constitutional rights and consumer protection.
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