Thursday Rulings: Supreme Court Issues Decisions on OxyContin Settlement, Abortion, SEC Fraud and Environmental Protection 

The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) issued four more opinions Thursday. Still, it didn’t include the highly anticipated decision regarding former President Donald Trump’s immunity claims from criminal prosecution ahead of the evening’s presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Trump.

Here’s the roundup of all decisions released June 27, including a significant ruling on abortion.

Abortion in instances of health emergencies

The Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration in the Moyle v. United States case in a 6-3 decision when it dismissed an Idaho appeal, which sidestepped the question of whether the Biden administration’s interpretation of federal law conflicts with Idaho’s ban on abortion.

The ruling means emergency room physicians can now perform emergency abortions in Idaho despite the almost-total ban on abortion. The case will now continue playing out in the lower courts. With crucial questions remaining unanswered, the issue might end up back in front of the Supreme Court.

Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in 2022, the Biden administration argued that doctors, under federal law, must be allowed to provide emergency abortions for cases in which a woman is facing significant health risks.

Officials in Idaho challenged the Biden administration’s decision, saying the federal law conflicts with its state law that bans abortions. Idaho is one of 14 states that have complete bans on abortion in place, with limited exceptions, which include “necessary to prevent the death of a pregnant woman.” Otherwise, individuals who perform the procedure could face criminal penalties, including five years in prison, with healthcare professionals at risk of losing their medical licenses.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented in part and concurred in part with the decision. “Today’s decision is not a victory for pregnant patients in Idaho. It is a delay. While this court dawdles and the country waits, pregnant people experiencing emergency medical conditions remain in a precarious position, as their doctors are kept in the dark about what the law requires.”

Rejection of the OxyContin opioid settlement

SCOTUS blocked a $6 billion nationwide settlement with Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, that would have shielded wealthy company owners from civil lawsuits regarding the opioid epidemic in exchange for billions in funding to help address the crisis. In Harrington v. Purdue Pharma, a narrow 5-4 vote, the justices blocked the agreement arranged between local and state governments and opioid-addicted victims. 

What does this mean? In 2019, Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy. However, the Sackler family owns Purdue Pharma and hasn’t declared bankruptcy. 

The ruling means the Sackers cannot receive immunity from being held liable in lawsuits tied to opioids. The case also sets a framework for similar agreements that protect a third party from being legally held responsible.

In the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “Nothing in present law authorizes the Sackler discharge. 

As one of four justices who dissented, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “Opioid victims and other future victims of mass torts will suffer greatly in the wake of today’s unfortunate and destabilizing decision.”

Environmental protections on hold

Joe Biden’s administration suffered yet another blow to its ambitious environmental plan from the high court. In the Ohio v. EPA case, the justices’ 5-4 ruling temporarily halts the Biden administration’s Clean Air Act’s “good neighbor” provision, which aims to reduce air pollution from power plants and factories in Midwestern and Western states that drifts downwind across state lines. The rule is temporarily on hold while legal challenges continue to play out.

West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, energy companies and other industry groups challenged the EPA’s rule, saying it wasn’t effective and was too expensive. In the meantime, the EPA contends the pollutants are linked to lung disease, premature death, and asthma. In a 2022 landmark decision, SCOTUS additionally limited the EPA’s authority to combat water pollution and climate change.

Limiting the power of federal agency

In a 6-3 decision in the Securities and Exchange Commission v. Jarkesy case, the justices put new limits on the power of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to combat securities fraud by ruling that the federal agency’s use of in-house courts violates the Constitution. The Supreme Court said people accused of fraud by the Sec have the right to a trial by jury in federal court.

The SEC was established during the Great Depression to ensure the financial markets stayed fair and investors were protected. George Jarkesy, a hedge fund manager, brought the challenge after the SEC claimed he violated securities laws and wasn’t truthful about two hedge funds he was managing. After an in-house SEC proceeding, Jarkesy had to pay a heavy penalty and was barred from particular industry roles. He argued that the case should not have been heard in federal court but in an SEC court.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that a defendant facing an SEC fraud suit has “the right to be tried by a jury of his peers before a neutral adjudicator. Rather than recognize that right, the dissent would permit Congress to concentrate the roles of prosecutor, judge, and jury in the hands of the Executive Branch.”

In the meantime, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented with the other two liberal justices, expressed concern about repealing the power of federal agencies and wrote, “The constitutionality of hundreds of statutes may now be in peril, and dozens of agencies could be stripped of their power to enforce laws enacted by Congress.”