In the first Affordable Care Act case three years ago, the Supreme Court had to decide whether Congress had the power, under the Commerce Clause or some other source of authority, to require individuals to buy health insurance. It was a question that went directly to the structure of American government and the allocation of power within the federal system.
The court very nearly got the answer wrong with an exceedingly narrow reading of Congress’s commerce power. As everyone remembers, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., himself a member of the anti-Commerce Clause five, saved the day by declaring that the penalty for not complying with the individual mandate was actually a tax, properly imposed under Congress’s tax power.
I thought the court was seriously misguided in denying Congress the power under the Commerce Clause to intervene in a sector of the economy that accounts for more than 17 percent of the gross national product. But even I have to concede that the debate over structure has deep roots in the country’s history and a legitimate claim on the Supreme Court’s attention. People will be debating it as long as the flag waves.
But the new Affordable Care Act case, King v. Burwell, to be argued four weeks from now, is different, a case of statutory, not constitutional, interpretation. The court has permitted itself to be recruited into the front lines of a partisan war. Not only the Affordable Care Act but the court itself is in peril as a result.
At the invitation of a group of people determined to render the Affordable Care Act unworkable (the nominal plaintiffs are four Virginia residents who can’t afford health insurance but who want to be declared ineligible for the federal tax subsidies that would make insurance affordable for them), the justices have agreed to decide whether the statute as written in fact refutes one of the several titles that Congress gave it: “Quality, Affordable Health Care for All Americans.”
If the Supreme Court agrees with the challengers, more than seven million people who bought their insurance in the 34 states where the federal government set up the marketplaces, known as exchanges, will lose their tax subsidies. The market for affordable individual health insurance will collapse in the face of shrinking numbers of insured people and skyrocketing premiums, the very “death spiral” that the Affordable Care Act was designed to prevent.
It seems counterintuitive to describe a statutory case as having implications as profound as a constitutional one, but this one does. It hasn’t received the attention it deserves, probably because the dispute over phraseology that the case purports to present strikes many people as trivial or, at least, fixable if the court gives the wrong answer. Actually, it’s neither. (Has anyone noticed that the House of Representatives voted on Tuesday for the 56th time to repeal the law?)
The precise statutory issue is the validity of the Internal Revenue Service rule that makes the tax subsidies available to those who qualify by virtue of their income, regardless of whether the federal government or a state set up the exchange on which the insurance was bought. The challengers’ argument that the rule is invalid depends on the significance of two sub-clauses of the act that refer to “an exchange established by a state,” seemingly to the exclusion of the federally established exchanges.
But other parts of the complex and interlocking description of how the subsidies work suggest no such limitation. They point strongly in the opposite direction. For example, if a state chooses the option not to set up its own exchange, an option 34 states have exercised, the law requires the United States Department of Health and Human Services to “establish and operate such exchange within the state.” (Justice Antonin Scalia loves to quote dictionaries, and the government’s brief obliges him by quoting the definition of “such” from Black’s Law Dictionary, a standard legal reference: “that or those, having just been mentioned.”) The government argues that in this exercise of “cooperative federalism,” the federal government simply acts as the state’s surrogate; functionally, the federal exchange “is an exchange established by the state.” The law’s other relevant sections support that interpretation. For example, one section provides that any “applicable taxpayer,” defined by income, will be eligible for the subsidy, making no reference to where the taxpayer purchased the insurance.
I could go on about the intricacies of the statute, but the intricacies aren’t my point. 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. (They do disagree on such matters as the legitimacy of using legislative history, or on what weight to give a law’s ostensible purpose; I’m referring here to how they actually read a statute’s words.)
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.” (Justice Scalia was addressing a lawyer for the state of Texas, who was arguing for a very narrow reading of the Fair Housing Act. The justice’s skepticism toward the state’s statutory argument has been, in my opinion, widely misinterpreted to mean that Justice Scalia will rule for those seeking to preserve the law’s current broad meaning. I believe, rather, that Justice Scalia will accept the broad statutory reading and then go on to find that the Fair Housing Act so interpreted is unconstitutional. That important case is Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project.)
Across the ideological spectrum, the court’s opinions are filled with comments like Justice Scalia’s. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a 1997 opinion that in a statutory case, courts have to look at “the language itself, the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., arguing for contextual interpretation in a 2009 opinion, observed that “the sun may be a star, but ‘starry sky’ does not refer to a bright summer day.”
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a 2006 opinion that an interpretation of a single statutory provision “is persuasive only to the extent one scrutinizes the provision without the illumination of the rest of the statute.”
These examples all come from a brief filed on the government’s behalf by a group of law professors who are specialists in statutory interpretation, administrative law or constitutional law. One is Charles Fried, a law professor at Harvard who served as solicitor general during the second Reagan administration. (Another signer of this brief is my Yale colleague, William N. Eskridge Jr., one of the country’s leading authorities on statutory interpretation.)
Readers of this column may recall my expression of shock back in November when the court agreed to hear King v. Burwell. A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., had unanimously rejected the challenge to the law, and the plaintiffs’ appeal didn’t meet the normal criteria for Supreme Court review. A defeat for the government — for the public at large, in my opinion — seemed all but inevitable.
While I’m still plenty disturbed by the court’s action, I’m disturbed as well by the defeatism that pervades the progressive community. To people who care about this case and who want the Affordable Care Act to survive, I have a bit of advice: Before you give up, read the briefs. (Most, although not all, are available on the website of the American Bar Association. ) Having read them this week, I’m beginning to think for the first time that the government may actually prevail.
The challengers have submitted a bunch of me-too arguments from the usual ideological suspects that offer various versions of the narrative concocted to validate the acontextual reading of the law that eliminates subsidies on the federal exchanges. That narrative depicts a highly implausible scenario in which the states — which under the Constitution couldn’t actually be compelled to set up their own exchanges — were given a powerful incentive: Set up your exchange or, if you exercise your choice to default to the feds, your citizens will lose their right to the tax subsidies that will enable them to afford insurance.
The problem for the challengers is that the statute itself nowhere says that, and no one in a position of power appears to have believed at the time that the law would do any such thing. In recent weeks, supporters of the law have had a great deal of fun digging up old statements and video clips demonstrating the contemporaneous belief of prominent Republicans that the subsidies would be available to everyone. The website Talking Points Memo posted one such revelation the other day about Representative Paul Ryan, who at the time was the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee.
Beyond what various people hoped or expected, there is a deeper issue that the challengers ignore but on which the government’s briefs are utterly persuasive. A fascinating brief filed in support of the government by an unusual coalition of 23 red-state and blue-state attorneys general (some from states with their own exchanges and others from federal-exchange states) maintains that the challengers’ narrative would “violate basic principles of cooperative federalism by surprising the states with a dramatic hidden consequence of their exchange election.”
This brief, written in the Virginia attorney general’s office, continues: “Every state engaged in extensive deliberations to select the exchange best suited to its needs. None had reason to believe that choosing a federally facilitated exchange would alter so fundamental a feature of the A.C.A. as the availability of tax credits. Nothing in the A.C.A. provided clear notice of that risk, and retroactively imposing such a new condition now would upend the bargain the states thought they had struck.”
There are abundant Supreme Court precedents that require Congress to give states “clear notice” of the consequences of the choices a federal law invites them to make. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. invoked that principle in a 2006 case interpreting the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a case cited by the 23 attorneys general. The government’s own brief, filed by Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., observes that “it would be astonishing if Congress had buried a critically important statewide bar to the subsidies under this landmark legislation” in technical sub-clauses.
To accept the challengers’ narrative, the government’s brief asserts, “the court would have to accept that Congress adopted that scheme not in a provision giving states clear notice of the consequences of their choice, but instead by hiding it in isolated phrases.” The court should interpret the statute “to avoid the disrespect for state sovereignty” inherent in that unlikely account.
Among the two dozen other “friend of the court” briefs filed on the government’s behalf is one from a group of small business owners (significant because the earlier case against the Affordable Care Act was brought by a small-business federation) and several from the health care industry. The Catholic Health Association, representing 600 Catholic hospitals, along with Catholic Charities, filed a brief explaining the significance of the Affordable Care Act for health care providers that serve, as the Catholic hospitals do, a high proportion of low-income patients.
So will the Affordable Care Act survive its second encounter with the Roberts court? I said earlier that this case is as profound in its implications as the earlier constitutional one. The fate of the statute hung in the balance then and hangs in the balance today, but I mean more than that. This time, so does the honor of the Supreme Court. To reject the government’s defense of the law, the justices would have to suspend their own settled approach to statutory interpretation as well as their often-stated view of how Congress should act toward the states.
I have no doubt that the justices who cast the necessary votes to add King v. Burwell to the court’s docket were happy to help themselves to a second chance to do what they couldn’t quite pull off three years ago. To those justices, I offer the same advice I give my despairing friends: Read the briefs. If you do, and you proceed to destroy the Affordable Care Act nonetheless, you will have a great deal of explaining to do — not to me, but to history.
“Is It Constitutional, The Civil Rights Act?”: Learning To Live With The Civil Rights Act, 50 Years Later
Freshman U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) has mainly drawn attention as a Tea Party ultra who somehow managed to draw a Tea Party ultra ultra 2014 primary opponent with rather exotic extracurricular activities.
But he may be fairly typical of his ideological cohort in having some, well, problems coming to grips with major legislation enacted a half-century ago, per this report from Scott Keyes of Think Progress:
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), a freshman congressman aligned with the Tea Party, held a town hall Monday evening in Gainesville where he fielded a wide range of questions from constituents. One such voter was Melvin Flournoy, a 57-year-old African American from Gainesville, who asked Yoho whether he believes the Civil Rights Act is constitutional.
The easy answer in this case — “yes” — has the benefit of also being correct. But Yoho found the question surprisingly difficult.
“Is it constitutional, the Civil Rights Act?” Yoho repeated before giving his reply: “I wish I could answer that 100 percent.” The Florida Republican then went on to strongly imply it may be unconstitutional: “I know a lot of things that were passed are not constitutional, but I know it’s the law of the land.”
Well, that’s mighty nice of him to acknowledge the Supremacy Clause, not a universal tendency among self-styled Constitutional Conservatives.
But the difficulty a lot of CCers have with the Civil Rights Act–which almost certainly exceeds public expression, given the rather controversial nature of fighting the particular lost cause that helped sink their predecessor Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign–comes from three distinct but interrelated sources. The wonkiest issue is hostility to the Commerce Clause jurisprudence on which the Public Accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act relied for regulating private discriminatory business practices. It’s very common in conservative legal circles to deplore the extension of federal power via the Commerce Clause during a chain of Supreme Court decisions beginning in the 1930s; Chief Justice Roberts famously refused to accept a Common Cause rationale for the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
A second argument that would have been more familiar to Goldwater and to the southern segregationists who flocked to his 1964 campaign is a states’ rights objection to federal regulation of race relations. While today’s neo-secessionists would try to stay a million miles from racial issues in arguing that “state sovereignty” retains meaning even after the Civil War, it still has a ghostly power in conservative circles.
And then there is the idea, embraced off-and-on by the Paul family, that the Civil Rights Act simply violates fundamental principles of private property rights that cannot be trammeled for any cause, however justifiable.
It’s unclear which of these conservative concerns about the Civil Rights Act Ted Yoho shares, notwithstanding his willingness to bend the knee to the “law of the land.” But it’s interesting that he and other constitutional conservatives can’t quite suppress their discomfort with a legal regime that ensures people aren’t denied access to restaurants and hotels and other business because of the color of their skins.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 15, 2014
Californians have recently voted to enact laws banning the sale and production of both eggs from cruelly housed hens and foie gras, a delicacy created by force-feeding ducks. While this may seem within the legal bounds of a state’s ability to regulate local commerce, one Congressman is up in arms about it: Steve King (R, IA). King, despite being one of the most outspoken proponents of states’ rights in Congress, is so convinced that California’s laws violate the Commerce Clause that he pushed through legislation overturning the animal rights acts and similar statutes in other states:
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who represents the country’s leading egg-producing state, said he introduced the amendment because the California law and others like it “scrambles and creates a patchwork quilt of state regulations.”
“If California wants to regulate eggs that come into the state, fine,” King said. “But don’t be telling the states that are producing a product that’s already approved by the USDA or the FDA how to produce that product.”
He said that the California requirement violates the commerce clause of the Constitution, which gives the federal government jurisdiction over interstate commerce issues.
King believes the entire Affordable Care Act – not simply the mandate, but the whole law – is an unconstitutional use of federal power under the Commerce Clause. This means that, according to King, any federal regulation of the insurance industry is unconstitutional. King also thinks states can ban contraception. These radical beliefs aren’t a surprise: King adheres to an extreme interpretation of the Tenth Amendment which aims to gut federal power.
So King appears to to think federal regulation of farming is constitutional, but regulation of the health care industry is not. A state ban on birth control is fine, but banning foie gras isn’t.
Of course, King has a perfectly good reason for going against his principles: saving his own skin. King is in the midst of a bruising reelection battle as a consequence of redistricting. The largest industry spending on his behalf is big agribusiness, which isn’t thrilled about California’s laws. King’s home state of Iowa has no standards for ethical caging of egg-producing hens, a fact which was linked to a significant salmonella outbreak in 2010.
King’s bill is so broadly worded that it might also overturn state safety standards for other agricultural products, including fruit, milk, and vegetables. It is currently attached as an amendment to the House Farm Bill, which would also take food stamps away from millions of needy Americans.
By: Zack Beauchamp, Think Progress, July 14, 2012
Predictions are always hazardous when it comes to the economy, the weather, and the Supreme Court. I won’t get near the first two right now, but I’ll hazard a guess on what the Court is likely to decide tomorrow: It will uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) by a vote of 6 to 3.
Three reasons for my confidence:
First, Chief Justice John Roberts is — or should be — concerned about the steadily-declining standing of the Court in the public’s mind, along with the growing perception that the justices decide according to partisan politics rather than according to legal principle. The 5-4 decision in Citizen’s United, for example, looked to all the world like a political rather than a legal outcome, with all five Republican appointees finding that restrictions on independent corporate expenditures violate the First Amendment, and all four Democratic appointees finding that such restrictions are reasonably necessary to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption. Or consider the Court’s notorious decision in Bush v. Gore.
The Supreme Court can’t afford to lose public trust. It has no ability to impose its will on the other two branches of government: As Alexander Hamilton once noted, the Court has neither the purse (it can’t threaten to withhold funding from the other branches) or the sword (it can’t threaten police or military action). It has only the public’s trust in the Court’s own integrity and the logic of its decisions — both of which the public is now doubting, according to polls. As Chief Justice, Roberts has a particular responsibility to regain the public’s trust. Another 5-4 decision overturning a piece of legislation as important as Obamacare would further erode that trust.
It doesn’t matter that a significant portion of the public may not like Obamacare. The issue here is the role and institutional integrity of the Supreme Court, not the popularity of a particular piece of legislation. Indeed, what better way to show the Court’s impartiality than to affirm the constitutionality of legislation that may be unpopular but is within the authority of the other two branches to enact?
Second, Roberts can draw on a decision by a Republican-appointed and highly-respected conservative jurist, Judge Laurence Silberman, who found Obamacare to be constitutional when the issue came to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The judge’s logic was lucid and impeccable — so much so that Roberts will try to lure Justice Anthony Kennedy with it, to join Roberts and the four liberal justices, so that rather than another 5-4 split (this time on the side of the Democrats), the vote will be 6 to 3.
Third and finally, Roberts (and Kennedy) can find adequate Supreme Court precedent for the view that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution gives Congress and the President the power to regulate health care — given that heath-care coverage (or lack of coverage) in one state so obviously affects other states; that the market for health insurance is already national in many respects; and that other national laws governing insurance (Social Security and Medicare, for example) require virtually everyone to pay (in these cases, through mandatory contributions to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds).
Okay, so I’ve stuck my neck out. We’ll find out tomorrow how far.
By: Robert Reich, Robert Reich Blog, June 27, 2012
Eric Spiegelman has an interesting post on how the legal establishment got the individual mandate so wrong. In it, he writes:
How far can the definition of Congress’ enumerated powers be stretched? As Justice Scalia asked during oral arguments: if Congress can force you to buy health insurance, can they also force you to buy broccoli? The question I like to ask is: what if Congress forced you to buy a gun?
But Congress has forced Americans to buy guns. It’s in the Militia Acts of 1792. The relevant section is a bit lengthy, so I’ve bolded the key parts:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia by the captain or commanding officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this act. And it shall at all times hereafter be the duty of every such captain or commanding officer of a company to enrol every such citizen, as aforesaid, and also those who shall, from time to time, arrive at the age of eighteen years, or being of the age of eighteen years and under the age of forty-five years (except as before excepted) shall come to reside within his bounds; and shall without delay notify such citizen of the said enrolment, by a proper non-commissioned officer of the company, by whom such notice may be proved. That every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball: or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear, so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise, or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack.
Now, you could argue that this was not done under the Commerce Clause. But as Yale’s Akhil Reid Amar says, “the law shows that George Washington, who signed the law, thought that purchase-mandates were not intrinsically improper. If Congress can regulate a ‘well-regulated’ militia with a mandate, why can’t Congress regulate interstate commerce the same way?”
Incidentally, that’s not the only time an early congress mandated that Americans purchase privately sold products:
In 1790, the very first Congress—which incidentally included 20 framers—passed a law that included a mandate: namely, a requirement that ship owners buy medical insurance for their seamen. This law was then signed by another framer: President George Washington. That’s right, the father of our country had no difficulty imposing a health insurance mandate.[…]
Six years later, in 1798, Congress addressed the problem that the employer mandate to buy medical insurance for seamen covered drugs and physician services but not hospital stays. And you know what this Congress, with five framers serving in it, did? It enacted a federal law requiring the seamen to buy hospital insurance for themselves. That’s right, Congress enacted an individual mandate requiring the purchase of health insurance. And this act was signed by another founder, President John Adams.
That’s from Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law, who continues, “not only did most framers support these federal mandates to buy firearms and health insurance, but there is no evidence that any of the few framers who voted against these mandates ever objected on constitutional grounds. Presumably one would have done so if there was some unstated original understanding that such federal mandates were unconstitutional.”
Also of note: unlike the mandate to buy muskets, the maritime mandates were exercised under the Commerce Clause.
By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post Wonkblog, June 26, 2012