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Protesters speak out against the Affordable Care Act in front of the Supreme Court during a previous legal challenge. Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

The Justice Department will not defend the Affordable Care Act in court, and says it believes the law's individual mandate — the provision the Supreme Court upheld in 2012 — has become unconstitutional.

Why it matters: The Justice Department almost always defends federal laws when they're challenged in court. Its departure from that norm in this case is a major development — career DOJ lawyers removed themselves from the case as the department announced this shift in its position.

The details: The ACA's individual mandate requires most people to buy insurance or pay a tax penalty. The Supreme Court upheld that in 2012 as a valid use of Congress' taxing power.

  • When Congress claimed it repealed the individual mandate last year, what it actually did was drop the tax penalty to $0.
  • So the coverage requirement itself is still technically on the books. And a group of Republican attorneys general, representing states led by Texas, say it's now unconstitutional — because the specific penalty the Supreme Court upheld is no longer in effect.
  • The Justice Department agreed with that position in a brief filed Thursday night.
  • DOJ said the courts should strike down the coverage requirement, as well as the provision of the law that forces insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

Between the lines: For the Justice Department to stop defending a federal law is not unprecedented — the Obama administration did it with the Defense of Marriage Act. But it is exceptionally rare.

Yes, but: A group of Democratic attorneys general has been granted permission to defend the ACA in this case, so someone will be in its corner.

What to watch: The argument against it is by no means a slam dunk. For starters, critics — now including the Justice Department — will have to prove that people are still being injured by the remaining shell of the individual mandate, even without a penalty for non-compliance.

Get more stories like this by signing up for our daily health care newsletter, Vitals. 

This story has been updated to note that the Obama administration stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Updated 1 hour ago - Science

NASA's delays Mars helicopter test flight

Ingenuity (left) with Perseverance on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA announced Saturday it rescheduled its Ingenuity Mars helicopter's first experimental flight, originally planned for Sunday.

The latest: "During a high-speed spin test of the rotors on Friday, the command sequence controlling the test ended early due to a 'watchdog' timer expiration," NASA said in a statement. "This occurred as it was trying to transition the flight computer from ‘Pre-Flight’ to ‘Flight’ mode."

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel escorted out of RNC retreat

Ohio Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel. Photo: Chris Maddaloni / Getty Images

During this weekend’s highly anticipated donor retreat hosted by the Republican National Committee in Palm Beach, Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel was escorted off the premises while his primary opponent, Jane Timken, was allowed to stay, two sources with direct knowledge of the situation tell Axios.

What we’re hearing: The invitation-only event is taking place at the Four Seasons Resort, and the RNC reserved the entire hotel. While Timken, former Ohio GOP chair, was invited to the event “because she is a major donor” — Mandel was not, so he was asked to leave, according to one of the sources.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
3 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Report: John Kerry plans to visit China ahead of Biden's climate summit

John Kerry. Photo: Zach Gibson / Stringer

John Kerry, President Biden's special climate envoy, is expected to travel to China next week for meetings with officials aimed at boosting collaboration, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

Why it matters: China is the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter and the U.S. is second-largest.