That, I suppose, is one lesson to be learned. Another is that the King lawsuit was so obviously frivolous and nakedly political that even arch-conservative and Affordable Care Act skeptic John Roberts felt constrained to reject it.
Commentators have been weighing in since the Supreme Court decided it would hear King v. Burwell, the case challenging the ability of millions of Americans to receive subsidies to purchase health insurance on federally operated Exchanges under the ACA. Debate swirls over whether a decision striking down these subsidies will gut the ACA or not, but at the very least a ruling in favor of the petitioners would have grave consequences for ACA the and the millions that currently receive these subsidies.
There is, however, more at stake in the King case than the ACA. If the Court takes this opportunity to cut down the ACA, it does so at the cost of the principle of separation of powers and the Supreme Court’s institutional legitimacy and credibility.
The question in King will be resolved under the Chevron framework, which provides that if a statutory provision is ambiguous, then the court must defer to the agency’s interpretation, so long as it is permissible. Reasonable, learned minds have been disagreeing on the meaning of the statutory provision. As Adrian Vermeule has pointed out, of the 9 federal judges that have reviewed this question, 6 have agreed with the government’s interpretation or concluded the statute is ambiguous, and 3 have concluded that the statute unambiguously precludes subsidies. This type of judicial disagreement is evidence itself of statutory ambiguity. Continue reading →
Much attention has been paid recently to the contradicting decisions issued on the Halbig and King cases, which challenged the Obamacare subsidies offered to individuals purchasing insurance on federal exchanges. In a piece for Politico Magazine, Abbe R. Gluck finds a weakness in the Halbig plaintiffs’ arguments, in their own words. As Gluck writes:
What’s less known, however, is that in the 2012 constitutional case, these same challengers filed briefs describing Obamacare to the court in precisely the way they now say the statute cannot possibly be read. Namely, they assumed that the subsidies were available on the federal exchanges and went so far as to argue that the entire statute could not function as written without the subsidies. That’s a far cry from their argument now that the statute makes crystal clear that Congress intended to deny subsidies on the federal exchanges.
I am not a fan of the “gotcha” flavor that some aspects of this case have taken on, but the challengers’ 2012 statements are relevant as a legal matter because what the government has to prove to win—as a matter of black-letter law under the Chevron doctrine—is that the statute is ambiguous. (Chevron says that federal courts defer to the relevant agency’s reading of the statute when a federal statute is unclear—here, that agency is the IRS.)
The challengers have spent more than a year arguing that no reasonable reader of text could construe the statute in any way other than denying federal subsidies to insurance purchasers on exchanges operated by the federal government. But what about their statements from 2012—statements then echoed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito in their joint dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the constituitional challenge, NFIB v. Sebelius?
You can read more, including the relevant passages from the NFIB v. Sebelius briefs, here.