U.S. Supreme Court Asks Obama Administration to Weigh In on ‘Healthy San Francisco’

High Court calls for views of Solicitor General on popular health reform program that serves nearly 47,000 uninsured San Franciscans

SAN FRANCISCO (Oct. 5, 2009) — The United States Supreme Court this morning invited the Obama Administration to set forth its position on whether the court should grant review to the Golden Gate Restaurant Association’s legal challenge to the validity of a key provision of San Francisco’s universal health care program, “Healthy San Francisco.” At issue in the contentious three-year legal battle is whether the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, preempts local laws such as San Francisco’s from requiring ongoing employer spending for employee health benefits, or alternative payments to a local government.

In calling for the views of Solicitor General Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court has effectively postponed a decision many expected today as to whether it would grant or deny GGRA’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari on this — the first Monday in October — the traditional first day of the Supreme Court session. Although the Department of Labor under former President Bush previously filed briefs opposing the City’s program in the lower courts, the new administration has indicated that it is taking a fresh look at the case.

“The Bush Labor Department’s position was not simply wrong as a matter of law, it was wrong for fundamentally ignoring the urgent need for health care reform,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “I am hopeful that the new administration will not take such a knee-jerk position, but will instead thoroughly review the legal and policy implications of the case.”

In cases involving the application of federal laws such as ERISA, the Court often seeks the views of the executive branch, which is responsible for administering the law, before deciding whether to grant review. GGRA’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari seeks to overturn a Sept. 30, 2008 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the validity of the City’s employer spending requirement for health care.

The case is Golden Gate Restaurant Association v. City and County of San Francisco et al., Supreme Court of the United States, Case No. 08-1515. A timeline of key events in the case follows:

  • July 25, 2006: San Francisco Board of Supervisors passes San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance 10-0 (File No. 051919. Ordinance 218-06).
  • Aug. 4, 2006: Mayor Newsom signs ordinance into law.
  • Nov. 8, 2006: Golden Gate Restaurant Association sues in U.S. District Court, seeking to invalidate the employer spending requirements of the City’s ordinance on federal preemption grounds (that it violates the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA)
  • March 1, 2007: Local labor unions (San Francisco Central Labor Council, SEIU Local 1021, SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West, and UNITE-HERE! Local 2) move to intervene in case as defendants.
  • April 2, 2007: City amends Ordinance to defer implementation of employer provisions until Jan. 1, 2008 for employers with fifty or more employees; and until April 1, 2008 for employers with twenty to forty-nine employees.
  • April 5, 2007: U.S. District Court grants unions’ motion to intervene.
  • July 13, 2007: Parties file cross-motions for summary judgment in case.
  • Nov. 2, 2007: U.S. District Court hears oral argument on cross-motions.
  • Dec. 26, 2007: U.S. District Court finds for GGRA, holding the employer mandate to be preempted by federal ERISA law
  • Dec. 27, 2007: City Attorney Herrera files emergency motion with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking stay in district court ruling to enable program to take effect on Jan. 1, 2008.
  • Jan. 9, 2008: Ninth Circuit grants Herrera’s emergency motion, enabling program to go forward with the employer mandate intact.
  • Feb. 8, 2008: GGRA files emergency petition with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy (in his capacity as circuit justice for the Ninth Circuit) seeking immediate reversal of the Ninth Circuit’s stay order.
  • Feb. 21, 2008: Justice Kennedy denies GGRA’s emergency petition without comment.
  • Sept. 30, 2008: Ninth Circuit rules in favor of the City, holding that the employer health care spending requirement is not preempted by ERISA
  • March 9, 2009: Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denies GGRA’s petition for rehearing en banc.
  • March 17, 2009: GGRA files another emergency petition with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy seeking immediate stay of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ final ruling on the merits.
  • March 30, 2009: Justice Kennedy again denies GGRA’s emergency petition without comment.
  • June 6, 2009: GGRA files petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court asking for the high court to review the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that rejected the challenge the healthcare employer spending requirement
  • August 24, 2009: San Francisco and amici curiae submit briefing to the U.S. Supreme Court opposing GGRA’s petition for review.
  • October 5, 2009: On the first Monday in October, the traditional first day of the U.S. Supreme Court term, the high court calls for the views of the Solicitor General on the case.