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“John Roberts To America; I’m In Charge Here”: A Blunt Message To Politicians To Stop Abusing The Judiciary

When, just over two years ago, right-wing superlawyer Michael Carvin filed his first lawsuit seeking to deny Affordable Care Act tax credits to millions of individuals in states with federally operated exchanges, die-hard ACA opponents saw one reason why the Supreme Court might use an isolated four-word phrase to sabotage the ACA—that all five conservative justices would vote their political gut. As decision day approached, many ACA supporters (including me) suspected that the challengers’ political appeal might only be overcome if one or two of the conservative justices—Anthony Kennedy and/or Chief Justice John Roberts—would embrace states rights–based constitutional arguments to save the law.

Last Thursday, when the Court issued its decision in the case, King v. Burwell, all these hopes and fears about the political and ideological vectors at play, specifically, with Roberts, turned out to be dead wrong. The chief justice had bigger fish to fry—personal, institutional, and policy priorities—that led him to uphold the Obama administration’s decision to make tax credits available nationwide:

  • Asserting his personal leadership of the Court, by mobilizing a 6-3 bipartisan majority, and taking the heat for writing a no-holds-barred, decisive opinion in the most politically divisive case on this year’s docket;
  • Continuing an ever more evident drive to advance the Court’s power vis-à-vis the two elected branches, as the final decider and major direction-setter on the nation’s most fought-over policy issues;
  • Sending a blunt message to conservative activists, lawyers, and politicians to stop abusing the judiciary as a handy back-door gimmick to reverse political defeats they have been unable to reverse in political arenas—in particular, to stop bringing cases designed to “undo” the ACA;
  • Sending a subtle, gratuitous, but nevertheless quite discernible piece of policy advice to Republican politicians and policy-makers, in the form of a reminder of the ACA’s Republican ancestry in Massachusetts’ 2006 Romneycare reform law, referencing that model’s conservative credentials as a way to “expand coverage” while relying on private health insurance markets.

As the litigation made its way toward the high court, ACA opponents had been upfront about their bet that conservatives on the bench shared, and would act on their animus to the president’s signature legislative accomplishment. In September 2014, after the full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had voted to vacate and rehear a 2-1 decision in his favor, Carvin candidly opined that raw partisan politics would drive the Supreme Court to preempt the appellate court’s consideration of the case: “I don’t know that four justices, who are needed to [grant review of the case] here . . . are going to give much of a damn about what a bunch of Obama appointees on the D.C. Circuit think.” Asked if he believed he would lose the votes of any of the five conservative justices, he smiled and said, “Oh, I don’t think so.” Carvin’s cynical take was hardly unique; some of his allies openly forecast that Roberts would feel a need to appease conservatives who excoriated him for his 2012 vote to save the ACA.

Last Thursday, Roberts dashed conservative hopes and liberal fears of a partisan political decision. To the contrary, as conservative blogger Josh Blackman ruefully explained on a Federalist Society post-mortem conference call, the decision effectively seemed to elevate the ACA into a kind of “untouchable super-statute that is beyond reach.” Blackman characterized Roberts’s message as, “This is over . . . We’re through”—meaning, we’re through hearing cases ginned up by our clever lawyer friends to precipitate judicial de facto repeal of the law. Roberts’s brush-off of these core allies was foreshadowed by remarks he made at the University of Nebraska a few days before Carvin bared his cynical partisan take on the conservative justices. Then the chief justice said he was “worried about people having [the] perception” that the Court is no less a political body than Congress or the presidency. He attributed this trend to polarization in the elected branches, saying that he did not “want that to spill over and affect us.” Though widely disregarded at the time as standard civics class pap, it now appears clear that Roberts was serious and motivated by clear-eyed concern about the Court’s stature. As he observed in his 2005 confirmation hearings, “It is a very serious threat to the independence and integrity of the courts to politicize them.” King v. Burwell posed just such an institutional threat, and it was his job as chief justice to dispel it.

But to Roberts, protecting the Court’s reputation does not mean staying above the fray, much less retreating to the sidelines. On the contrary, the decision showed how focused he is on enhancing the Court’s power, well understanding that its non-political image is, ironically, essential to its clout. His opinion reasoned that, read in the context of the overall statute and Congress’ “plan,” the four-word phrase “established by the state” on which the challengers relied was “ambiguous.” When statutes are ambiguous, long-standing black-letter law requires courts to defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation, rather than impose an interpretation that the court considers correct. But Roberts did not take that route. Instead, he said, the Court must decide for itself what the law means, on the ground—never before asserted so categorically—that the availability of ACA tax credits is “a question of deep economic and political significance that is central to this statutory scheme.” Of course, he then held that the administration’s interpretation was the right call. Administrative law experts were quick to note that, in the words of Ohio State law professor Chris Walker, “King v. Burwell—while a critical win for the Obama Administration—is a judicial power grab over the Executive in the modern administrative state.”

Roberts’s yen to project the Court as a player on the policy question of “deep economic and political significance” posed by the case was also manifest in another theme of his opinion, understated but audacious. Not only did he note the ACA’s roots in Romneycare, but he underscored that law’s record of effectiveness in reducing the “uninsured rate in Massachusetts to 2.6%, by far the lowest in the Nation,” and then went on to observe that the ACA “adopts a version of the three key reforms that made the Massachusetts system successful” (emphasis added), including the affordablity tax credits at issue in King, as well as the “individual mandate” that Roberts upheld as a pay-or-play tax incentive in 2012 in NFIB v. Sebelius. This and other notably favorable descriptions of the ACA in Thursday’s opinion seem aimed at Republican policy-makers and politicians. His message recalls his 2012 approval of the law’s individual mandate as an optional tax incentive—preferable, he wrote, because the “taxing power does not give Congress the same degree of control over individual behavior” as a Commerce Clause–based absolute mandate.

As I wrote after the NFIB decision, Roberts took this policy argument from a 2011 D.C. Circuit opinion by fellow George W. Bush appointee Judge Brett Kavanaugh; that opinion favorably portrayed the ACA as potentially “the leading edge of a shift” to “privatize the social safety net and government assistance programs.” In these opinions, Kavanaugh and Roberts seem to be pitching a line favored in conservative policy circles prior to the recent rise of tea party-style anti-government absolutism—keep and expand the national safety net, but privatize and regulate it through incentives rather than commands. With his decisions in NFIB v. Sebelius and King v. Burwell, however, John Roberts has gone further than merely touting that big-government conservative model for safety net governance, casting the ACA as a product of that model. He has used his power to entrench it—against demands from the left for a command-and-control version of the ACA individual mandate, and against conservatives’ strategy of killing the ACA in court. This, Roberts concluded, is “the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid”—and which, the chief justice made crystal clear, he will be loath to permit, in this case and any other challenge the law’s opponents might cook up.

 

By: Simon Lazarus, Senior Counsel to the Constitutional Accountability Center; The New Republic, June 27, 2015

June 29, 2015 Posted by | John Roberts, King v Burwell, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Antonin Scalia Defeated — By Antonin Scalia”: He Had His Own Previous Arguments Turned Against Him

Justice Antonin Scalia did not simply lose today’s key ruling on the federal health insurance subsidies for the Affordable Care Act — he had his own previous arguments turned against him.

The majority opinion issued today, written principally by Chief Justice John Roberts — whose crucial vote previously upheld Obamacare back in 2012 — illustrated the idea of the insurance subsidies being an integral part of health care reform itself.

And the absurdity of just striking out subsidies for people living in states with federally run exchanges — as Scalia and his fellow dissenters insisted had to be done under the law — was illustrated by citing… Antonin Scalia, from his earlier efforts to stamp out health care reform.

It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner. See National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 […] (SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., dissenting) […] (“Without the federal subsidies . . . the exchanges would not operate as Congress intended and may not operate at all.”).

That is, Roberts and company cited the dissent in the first major Obamacare case, from 2012, when the dissenters — Scalia being one of them — tried to say that pretty much each every single facet of the Affordable Care Act was not only wrong but unconstitutional, and that they interlocked so completely that by striking down even one of them, the entire Act would have to fall.

As a political staffer friend, who is a trained lawyer (though not currently practicing), tells me: “The problem with results-oriented jurisprudence is it makes hypocrisy easy to spot.”

The full paragraph in that original dissent is as follows:

In the absence of federal subsidies to purchasers, insurance companies will have little incentive to sell insurance on the exchanges. Under the ACA’s scheme, few, if any, individuals would want to buy individual insurance policies outside of an exchange, because federal subsidies would be unavailable outside of an exchange. Difficulty in attracting individuals outside of the exchange would in turn motivate insurers to enter exchanges, despite the exchanges’ onerous regulations. […] That system of incentives collapses if the federal subsidies are invalidated. Without the federal subsidies, individuals would lose the main incentive to purchase insurance inside the exchanges, and some insurers may be unwilling to offer insurance inside of exchanges. With fewer buyers and even fewer sellers, the exchanges would not operate as Congress intended and may not operate at all.

 

By: Eric Kleefeld, The National Memo, June 25, 2015

June 28, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Antonin Scalia, King v Burwell | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Conservatives Lost Outright”: John Roberts, Liberal Hero; How The Chief Justice Destroyed The Conservative Case Against ObamaCare

Since ObamaCare passed in 2010, Republicans have been searching desperately for a way to destroy the law through legal trickery (or as they call it, “judicial activism”), since they don’t have the means to kill it through legislation. In 2012, with the Supreme Court decision NFIB v. Sebelius, they got a partial victory, with the court badly wounding the law’s Medicaid expansion but leaving the rest unharmed.

In the case decided on Thursday, King v. Burwell, conservatives sought to cripple the insurance markets in states that had not set up their own health care exchanges. They did this by advancing a spurious reading of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that would forbid insurance subsidies from flowing through the federal exchange website, thus devastating the private insurance markets in those states.

This time, conservatives lost outright. Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy and the four liberals on the bench, wrote the opinion — and it delivers a stark rebuke to the conservatives who have been fumbling around for an alternative to ObamaCare since 2010. “Repeal and replace” has been their mantra, but they never even got close to uniting around an actual replacement policy. Today, Roberts shows us why: It’s impossible.

King focused on a single phrase in the ACA, “established by the State,” which, taken out of all legal and policy context, could be construed to restrict subsidies to the state exchanges only. Because the Chevron doctrine requires that, in case of ambiguous wording, the implementing agencies get to decide how to interpret a law (in this case the IRS), it was necessary to construct an alternate history of the ACA. In this version, Congress meant to restrict subsidies to the state exchanges, to coerce states into creating one.

Liberals carefully explained that no, that was a completely insane version of ObamaCare’s history. Health care policy reporters, the staffers who drafted the law, and members of Congress who voted for it all swore up and down that this had never even been seriously discussed, let alone that it was their intention. State-level politicians, who are responsible for deciding whether to create their own exchanges, reported they had never heard of such a threat. Why would Congress create a mechanism to force states to do something, and then never mention it?

Roberts’ opinion delivers total victory to the liberal case. First, he examines the statute and finds that, in fact, it is not ambiguous — the government’s interpretation is correct. He writes that, considered in context, the plaintiff’s reading of “established by the State” would make great swathes of the rest of the law totally nonsensical. The ACA clearly states that all exchanges are to provide qualified plans to qualified people, which would be impossible for the federal exchange without subsidies. Moreover, why would the law provide for a creation of a federal exchange at all, if nobody can actually use it?

Second, and more fundamentally, Roberts finds that the plaintiff’s reading of ACA is poles apart from the obvious policy intention of the law. He accurately describes ObamaCare’s three-pronged approach: guaranteed issue and community rating, requiring insurance companies to offer policies to everyone at a reasonable price; an individual mandate, so that healthy people will participate in the risk pool; and subsidies for people who can’t afford the insurance.

All three are necessary for ObamaCare to work, but the plaintiffs’ reading would eliminate two of the three prongs in states without their own exchange. Subsidies would go, and so would the individual mandate, because it doesn’t apply if people are spending more than 8 percent of their income on a policy. Roberts notes that this would likely cause an insurance death spiral in those states, as healthier people flee an increasingly expensive market, turning the ACA into a health insurance doomsday device. Indeed, just such a death spiral happened in several states before ObamaCare passed — which is partly why it included all three prongs. “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” he concludes.

That brings me to the “replacement” rhetoric. Roberts’ clear account of ObamaCare’s policy mechanism, and the damage that would be done should any of its main prongs be removed, deals a body blow to the conservative health care wonks who have been trying to cook up a replacement policy for the last five years — in particular, a plan without the unpopular individual mandate. But as Roberts plainly shows, that leads straight to disaster.

It’s an implicit concession that ObamaCare is the most conservative possible policy that could get even close to universal coverage — if five years of Republican policy failure weren’t enough evidence.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, June 25, 2015

June 28, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Conservatives, King v Burwell | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Antonin Scalia’s ‘Interpretive Jiggery-Pokery'”: With Increasing Frequency, Scalia’s Reputation Continues To Deteriorate

Two years ago tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, much to Justice Antonin Scalia’s chagrin. Adding to his greatest-hits list, the far-right jurist called the majority’s rationale “legalistic argle-bargle.”

Today, as my msnbc colleague Irin Carmon reported, Scalia was once again in rare form today in his King v. Burwell dissent.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Writing on their behalf, Scalia accused the majority of acting in bad faith just to save the law. “So it rewrites the law to make tax credits available everywhere. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” Scalia wrote in the dissent. He said Roberts’ reasoning was an act of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.”

No, seriously. Scalia actually used the phrase “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” It’s on page 8. Two pages later, he published the phrase “pure applesauce” as a complete sentence.

The justice has been embarrassing himself with increasing frequency, but Scalia’s reputation continues to deteriorate further.

The broader point, however, is less about the justice’s strange word choice and more about his increasingly twisted approach to the law.

The dissent in King is literally hard to believe. On page 17 of the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts even mocks the dissenters for making the opposite conclusion that they drew three years ago:

“It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner.   See National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U. S. ___, ___ (2012) (SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., dissenting) (slip op., at 60) (“Without the federal subsidies … the exchanges would not operate as Congress intended and may not operate at all.”).

It’s no small detail. Three years ago, when the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality was challenged, Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Sam Alito read the law in such a way as to see all eligible consumers receiving subsidies, regardless of state or federal exchanges. In today’s dissent, these three had to read the law in the polar opposite way.

And therein lies the point: it seems as if the dissenting justices were so eager to rule against “Obamacare” that they were willing to ignore legislative history, legislative intent, context, and their own beliefs from three years ago.

I’m also reminded of this Linda Greenhouse piece from February.

Statutory interpretation is something the Supreme Court does all the time, week in and week out, term after term. And while the justices have irreconcilable differences over how to interpret the Constitution, they actually all agree on how to interpret statutory text.  […]

Every justice subscribes to the notion that statutory language has to be understood in context. Justice Scalia said it from the bench just last month, during an argument about the proper interpretation of the federal Fair Housing Act. “When we look at a provision of law, we look at the entire provision of law, including later amendments,” Justice Scalia said. “We try to make sense of the law as a whole.” … Across the ideological spectrum, the court’s opinions are filled with comments like Justice Scalia’s.

Today, Scalia threw all of that out the window, saying what matters isn’t the entire provision of law, but how he could take half a sentence out of context to undermine a law he doesn’t like.

“Words no longer have meaning,” Scalia whined today. In reality, words are still fine. What lacks meaning are Scalia’s unhinged complaints.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, June 25, 2015

June 26, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Antonin Scalia, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Watch What You Pray For, You May Get It”: Republicans Have Boxed Themselves In A Corner On Obamacare

There’s an adage that perfectly captures the Republicans’ conundrum on Obamacare: Watch what you pray for; you may get it. Having spent the past five years viciously battling the Affordable Care Act, GOP leaders are worried that the U.S. Supreme Court may grant them a victory.

If the high court rules in favor of conservatives who have challenged the health care law — essentially gutting it — millions of Americans will lose the subsidies that allow them to purchase health insurance.

They’ll no longer be able to afford to see a doctor. They won’t be able to pay for knee replacements or chemotherapy treatments. They won’t have the money for drugs for hypertension and diabetes.

And they’ll be furious — just in time for the 2016 presidential election. Now that so many people have reaped the benefits of access to medical care, they want to keep enjoying them. They will be fighting mad if their health insurance is suddenly taken away.

That’s because the Affordable Care Act is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Consider a report from the highly respected RAND Corp. — a nonpartisan research group — which issued its latest judgment on the Affordable Care Act in May.

Its study found that nearly 17 million people now have health insurance because of Obamacare. In addition, families may keep adult children on their policies until age 26. There are no longer “lifetime caps” that limit the amount of money insurers will spend on the chronically ill. Patients are no longer turned down for health insurance because they are already sick.

“The Affordable Care Act has greatly expanded health insurance coverage, but it has caused little change in the way most previously covered Americans are getting health insurance coverage,” said Katherine Carman, who, according to a RAND press release, was the study’s lead author. In other words, the law didn’t wreak havoc on those who already had health insurance, as its critics had predicted.

It has slowly dawned on some Republican leaders that the law has provided tangible benefits to millions of Americans, and that they are likely to be blamed if those benefits are jerked away. But they have locked themselves into a very small room and lost the key. They can’t seem to find a way out.

President Obama noted the GOP’s intransigence in a speech to the Catholic Health Association a few days ago. “Once you see millions of people having health care, once you see that all the bad things that were predicted didn’t happen, you’d think that it’d be time to move on. It seems so cynical to want to take coverage away from millions of people,” he said.

But leading GOP officials have taught their aging base, many of whom are Medicare recipients, that the passage of Obamacare was tantamount to a communist takeover. Republican politicians have insisted for years that the Affordable Care Act would corrupt the health care system, ruin the economy and pave the way for a dictatorship. Now, they’d have a hard time persuading those voters, especially the Tea Partiers, it was all just extreme partisan rhetoric.

This latest high court challenge, King v. Burwell, is itself a symbol of Republicans’ determination to strip health care away from millions of Americans. (It’s also a sign of the partisanship that has overtaken the nation’s highest court, which should never have accepted the case.) It’s a frivolous suit that turns on the interpretation of four words in the statute — even though it’s perfectly clear what Congress meant.

If the court agrees with the challenger, chaos will ensue. The GOP will have to take responsibility for finding coverage for millions of people, although its fractious caucus is unlikely to agree on a fix.

Given the stakes, there are undoubtedly those among GOP elders who want the U.S. Supreme Court to maintain the status quo, even if they won’t say so publicly. After all, as Obama put it, “This isn’t … just about the Affordable Care Act. … This is now part of the fabric of how we care for one another. This is health care in America.”

Let’s hope at least five justices concur.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; Featured Post, The National Memo, June 13, 2015

June 14, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, King v Burwell, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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