The Court’s Consequential Concerns: King v. Burwell

Among the countless analyses now going on of today’s 84 minutes of oral argument before the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell, perhaps none is more perceptive than that offered by SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston, the dean of Supreme Court reporters. As many of us feared, however, it appears that the focus of several of the justices, perhaps a majority, was less on the law than on the “dire consequences” that would follow if the Court decided that the law was clear and that, accordingly, the government should lose. (See here for background on the case.)

Here’s Denniston:

From the time that the Supreme Court agreed in November to hear the challenge to subsidies on the thirty-four insurance exchanges set up by the federal government instead of by the states, the Obama administration and its supporters have talked darkly about the collapse of the entire ACA if that challenge succeeded. … The uncertain thing, as the hearing approached, was whether that message would get through to the nine members of the Court who would be the deciders.  If there was one dominant theme at the actual hearing, aside from how to read a complex federal statute, it was that a victory for the challengers would come at perhaps a serious loss—perhaps a constitutional loss, but at least a human and social loss in the end of the most ambitious (and audacious) health care plan ever enacted in America.

The point should not be missed. For “the Obama administration and its supporters,” the question was not whether the challengers should succeed on the law—but what will happen if they do. In a court of law, no less, the Obama team wants policy to trump law.

Denniston reports that it looks like the government has the Court’s more liberal members in its pocket, while Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito are likely with the challengers. Chief Justice Roberts said relatively little. That leaves Justice Kennedy, not surprisingly, who “sort of leaned toward the idea that the language of the ACA” was clear and thus the government should lose. “But in a broader sense,” Denniston continues, Kennedy was concerned with “a difficult constitutional question”: “that Congress should ordinarily not be allowed to coerce the states into doing something that Congress wants,” which arguably it did when it told the states to create exchanges or their citizens would be ineligible for federal tax credits for their health insurance, which would “send the insurance market into a death spiral.”

But what follows from that “difficult constitutional question,” sounding in federalism? Scalia put his finger on it, asking rhetorically, Denniston writes, “whether, if a correct reading of a law creates a constitutional problem, the Court has the authority to rewrite it.” In other words, is the Court simply one more legislative branch, to which the government turns when Congress has botched its job (“We need to pass the law to find out what’s in it,” the lady said.”)? Or is it a court of law, charged with saying what the law is, even when Congress has made a mess of things and should, by rights, face the music of the people for having done so? If consequences are indeed our concern, let’s focus on the most fundamental of them, starting with those that follow from abandoning the rule of law.