Would Linda Greenhouse Apply the Same Interpretive Method She Uses in Halbig to Habeas Corpus Cases? (Updated)

Yale law professor Linda Greenhouse is a former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent and now writes a legal column for the Times. Today, she writes about Halbig v. Burwell. For my latest on Halbig and similar cases, see here. Now Greenhouse, who argues these cases are just about gutting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act:

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with turning to the courts to achieve what politics won’t deliver; we all know that litigation is politics by other means. (Think school desegregation. Think reproductive rights. Think, perhaps, same-sex marriage.) Nor is the creativity and determination of the Affordable Care Act’s opponents any great revelation — not after they came within a hairsbreadth of getting the law’s individual mandate thrown out on a constitutional theory that would have been laughed out of court not too many years ago.

Boy, are they ever determined.

I accept the compliment, with one proviso. The stakes in the Halbig cases are much bigger than the PPACA. The IRS is subjecting those plaintiffs to taxes from which, as Greenhouse implicitly admits, the operative language of the statute would exempt them. The plaintiffs have a right not to be taxed unless Congress expressly grants the IRS that power. A federal judge whom Greenhouse respects (Thomas Griffith) surveyed the IRS’s rationales for subjecting tens of millions of Americans to those taxes, found those rationales to be meritless, and essentially ruled that the IRS is violating the law on a massive scale. If preventing the executive branch from exceeding its lawful powers is just “politics by other means,” then so are the habeas corpus cases Greenhouse approvingly cites.

Unfortunately, when Greenhouse takes the government’s side in Halbig, it seems to be on the basis that, “Of course there are ambiguities and inconsistencies in a 900-page bill that never went to a conference committee for a final stitching together of its many provisions.” That probably is true, but it does not follow that the statute is ambiguous or inconsistent with regard to the question presented in Halbig. The government certainly has asserted such ambiguities and inconsistencies exist. Yet a closer look at the government’s arguments shows that the specific provisions it cites are all quite consistent with the language authorizing subsidies only to those who buy coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.”

Greenhouse also commits an error as well as her own inconsistency. She claims the phrase “through an Exchange established by the State” appears only once in the subsidy-eligibility rules. In fact, it appears explicity twice: one mention appeared in the first draft of those rules; Senate Democrats added the second just before final Senate passage (which all by itself suggests they knew exactly what they were doing). Moreover, that phrase appears seven more times by cross-reference. And the subsidy-eligibility rules do not use any other language – at all – to describe the Exchanges through which the law authorizes subsidies. All of which evince a clear meaning and purpose: to offer subsidies only in states that comply with Congress’ desire that they should establish Exchanges.

Greenhouse’s inconsistency occurs when she (incorrectly) claims, “the two [Halbig] judges trained a laser focus on a single section, indeed on a single word, in the massive statute…ignor[ing] the broader context, in which Congress clearly intended to make insurance affordable[.]” The habeas corpus cases with which Greenhouse apparently agrees also focused on a single phrase – one could argue, a single word – in the Constitution. Would she criticize those cases for failing to uphold the overarching purpose of the Constitution – which appears right there in the preamble – to “insure domestic Tranquillity” and “provide for the common defense”?

I wrote Greenhouse to thank her for her column, which was far more respectful and gracious than many Halbig critics have been. I thought it might be fruitful to offer to debate these cases with her. She respectfully declined, but noted there is a movement afoot to bring my coauthor Jonathan Adler to New Haven for that purpose. Watch this space for development.

Update: I neglected to mention, because I failed to notice, another error in Greenhouse’s oped. She refers to the “failed Commerce Clause” attack on the PPACA brought under NFIB v. Sebelius. As constitutional-law aficionados and health-policy wonks know, the plaintiffs’ claim that the individual mandate exceeded Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause succeeded (even if the overall attack on the individual mandate failed on account of Chief Justice John Roberts redefining the mandate penalty as a tax).

Petty Offenses and Police-Community Relations in Ferguson

Reading through this Newsweek article on the troubled relations between police and residents in Ferguson, Mo. before this month’s blowup, this passage jumped out at me: 

“Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of 2,635,400,” according to the ArchCity Defenders report. And in 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases, “or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”

My first reaction – maybe yours too – was “is that a misprint?” Three arrest warrants per household in Ferguson last year?  

Now let’s stipulate that some of those warrants were written against out-of-towners, especially in matters arising from traffic offenses, tickets being a key revenue source for many municipalities in St. Louis’s North County. Yet here’s a second statistic some will find surprising: while reported property-crime rates in Ferguson have run well above the national average for years, violent-crime rates have not. After a high period that lasted through 2008, they have declined steadily to a point where last year Ferguson had about the same rate of violent crime as the nation generally. 

What seems clear at this point is that Ferguson – while in some ways a nicer and safer town than some have imagined – does suffer from a unusual degree of antagonism between police and residents, an antagonism that crucially involves race (the town is an extreme outlier in its now-famous extent of black underrepresentation in elected office) and yet has other vital dimensions as well. The town gets nearly a quarter of its municipal revenue from court fees – the figure in some neighboring towns is even higher – and according to the ArchCity Defenders report quoted in Newsweek, Ferguson’s municipal court is among the very worst in the way it adds its own hassle factor to the collection of petty fines:

ArchCity Defenders, which has tracked ticketing of St. Louis area residents for five years and focused primarily on vehicle violations, started a court-watching program because so many of its clients complained of traffic prosecution wreaking havoc on their lives. Defendants routinely alleged that a racially-motivated traffic stop led to their being jailed due to inability to pay traffic fines, which in turn prompted people to “los[e] jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration.” … One resident quoted in the study said, “It’s ridiculous how these small municipalities make their lifeline off the blood of the people who drive through the area.”

Racial antagonism between residents and law enforcement is bad no matter what, but it’s worse when residents wind up interacting constantly with law enforcement because of a culture of petty fines. (If you doubt that law enforcement in Ferguson has been touched by a culture of petty fines, read this Daily Beast account of how the town sought to charge a jail inmate for property damage for bleeding on its officers’ uniforms – even though the altercation with jailers arose after the town had picked up the wrong guy on a warrant issued on a common name.)

In recent years scholars and journalists have been developing a literature on how petty fines and low-level law enforcement can snowball into life-changing consequences for persons not by nature inclined toward criminality – recent entries include On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman (“web of warrants”) and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (“a devastating account of a legal system doing its job perfectly well”). Libertarians have participated actively in this literature, especially through the work of Radley Balko, and in June I brought together some links from Cato and Overlawyered in connection with a Cato podcast.

It seems so random and meaningless that a legal offense as minor as walking on the roadway would set in motion what was to prove the fatal confrontation between officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. But in the wider scheme of how Ferguson came to have its problem with policing, it may be neither random nor meaningless. 

What If We Applied the IRS’s Reasoning in Halbig & King to the Patriot Act or RFRA, Instead of the ACA?

Over at Darwin’s Fool, I posted a critique of the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in King v. Burwell. Unlike the D.C. Circuit’s ruling in Halbig v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit held that the IRS has the authority to issue subsidies in states with federal exchanges, despite the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act repeatedly says subsidy recipients must enroll in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.” I reproduce here my response to a commenter to that post, as his argument parallels those of many others who have been critical of these cases.

My commenter objected that a plain-text reading “must include the entire text of the bill,” which “makes clear that the goal of the bill was to provide health care to all Americans who needed it and could not, at that time get it.” Moreover, “It would be illogical for Congress to establish a national health care system that is based on subsidies and then not include those subsidies in all aspects,” thus “it is entirely reasonable to interpret that one sentence to mean that Congress intended the subsidies for all participants.” My reply:

Sir, I’m afraid you have things exactly backward.

The overall context of the PPACA presents no difficulty for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, Halbig v. Burwell, or the other cases challenging subsidies in federal exchanges. The text of the eligibility rules for those subsidies clearly and repeatedly limit eligibility to those who enroll in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.” There is nothing in the broader context of the statute to suggest that Congress understood the words “established by the State” to have any meaning other than their usual meaning. There isn’t even any statutory language that conflicts with that plain meaning. Jonathan Adler and I addressed (almost) all of these supposed anomalies here.

On the contrary, it is the Obama administration and its supporters for whom both the text and context present difficulties. (We can no longer call them supporters of the PPACA, given how adamantly opposed they are to implementing the law as Congress intended.) The subsidy-eligibility rules are the only place where Congress spoke directly to the question at issue. Those rules flatly contradict the administration’s position. Congress did not throw the phrase “established by the State” around loosely. They referred to exchanges “established by the State” when they meant exchanges established by the states. They referred generically to “an Exchange” when they meant either a state-established or a federal exchange. And they referred to state-established and federally established exchanges separately within a single provision, which shows they saw a difference between the two. Congress also did the exact same thing – withholding subsidies from residents of uncooperative states – in the PPACA’s other massive new entitlement program, the Medicaid expansion.<--break->

IPAB Case Coons v. Geithner Dismissed, for Now

Jonathan Adler has a summary at the Volokh Conspiracy.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s Independent Payment Advisory Board has been called a “death panel,” though I’ve argued one could just as legitimately call it a “life panel.” Either way, it is the most absurdly unconstitutional part of the PPACA.

Adler’s otherwise excellent summary neglects to mention IPAB’s most unconstitutional feature. Diane Cohen and I describe it here:

The Act requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to implement [IPAB’s] legislative proposals without regard for congressional or presidential approval. Congress may only stop IPAB from issuing self-executing legislative proposals if three-fifths of all sworn members of Congress pass a joint resolution to dissolve IPAB during a short window in 2017. Even then, IPAB’s enabling statute dictates the terms of its own repeal, and it continues to grant IPAB the power to legislate for six months after Congress repeals it. If Congress fails to repeal IPAB through this process, then Congress can never again alter or reject IPAB’s proposals…

Congress may amend or reject IPAB proposals, subject to stringent limitations, but only from 2015 through 2019. If Congress fails to repeal IPAB in 2017, then after 2019, IPAB may legislate without any congressional interference.

Like I said, absurdly unconstitutional. But that’s ObamaCare for you.

The Size and Scope of Fraud in Medicare

Medicare spends more than $600 billion annually, but not all of that money is spent wisely. Yesterday, I wrote about the Washington Post’s expose on motorized wheelchair fraud. Records suggest that 80 percent of motorized wheelchair claims are “improper,” amounting to billions in waste. Unfortunately for taxpayers, this is just the tip of the iceberg on Medicare fraud.

The Government Accountability Office estimated that Medicare’s “improper payments” amounted to $44 billion, or 8 percent of total expenditures, in 2012. GAO considers Medicare a “high risk” program for its “vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” GAO criticized Medicare for its inability to control the problem saying that Medicare “has yet to demonstrate sustained progress in lowering the rates [of improper payments].”

Other experts believe that GAO undercounts examples of fraud in Medicare. Malcolm Sparrow of Harvard University estimates that closer to 20 percent of claims–or $120 billion annually are improper.

Medicare’s lax oversight of its payment system perpetuates the issue. Millions of claims come in daily and are paid without review or analysis. Scammers know that Medicare payments will not be scrutinized; the chance of getting caught is quite low. Scammers simply adapt and continue finding ways to game the system.

Let’s Demilitarize the Regulatory Agencies, Too

[cross-posted from Overlawyered]

One consequence of the events in Ferguson, Mo. is that people are talking with each other across ideological lines who usually don’t, a symbol being the attention paid on both left and right to Sen. Rand Paul’s op-ed last week in Time. And one point worth discussing is how the problem of police militarization manifests itself similarly these days in local policing and in the enforcement of federal regulation.

At BuzzFeed, Evan McMorris-Santoro generously quotes me on the prospects for finding common ground on these issues. The feds’ Gibson Guitar raid — our coverage of that here — did much to raise the profile of regulatory SWAT tactics, and John Fund cited others in an April report:

Many of the raids [federal paramilitary enforcers] conduct are against harmless, often innocent, Americans who typically are accused of non-violent civil or administrative violations.

Take the case of Kenneth Wright of Stockton, Calif., who was “visited” by a SWAT team from the U.S. Department of Education in June 2011. Agents battered down the door of his home at 6 a.m., dragged him outside in his boxer shorts, and handcuffed him as they put his three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a police car for two hours while they searched his home. The raid was allegedly intended to uncover information on Wright’s estranged wife, Michelle, who hadn’t been living with him and was suspected of college financial-aid fraud.

The year before the raid on Wright, a SWAT team from the Food and Drug Administration raided the farm of Dan Allgyer of Lancaster, Pa. His crime was shipping unpasteurized milk across state lines to a cooperative of young women with children in Washington, D.C., called Grass Fed on the Hill. Raw milk can be sold in Pennsylvania, but it is illegal to transport it across state lines. The raid forced Allgyer to close down his business.

Fund goes on to discuss the rise of homeland-security and military-surplus programs that have contributed to the rapid proliferation of SWAT and paramilitary methods in local policing. He cites Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, which similarly treats both manifestations of paramilitary policing as part of the same trend.

As McMorris-Santoro notes in the BuzzFeed piece, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) has introduced a bill called the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act, citing such unsettling developments as a U.S. Department of Agriculture solicitation for submachine guns. 28 House Republicans have joined as sponsors, according to Ryan Lovelace at National Review.

There has already been left-right cooperation on the issue, as witness the unsuccessful Grayson-Amash amendment in June seeking to cut off the military-surplus 1033 program. As both sides come to appreciate some of the common interests at stake in keeping law enforcement as peaceful and proportionate as situations allow, there will be room for more such cooperation.

Are Sinjars like Streetcars?

“Pleikus are like streetcars.” That’s how McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson’s national security advisor, explained what the escalation of U.S. bombing of North Vietnam in February 1965 to had to do with the administration’s justification for it, which was a Vietcong attack on U.S. bases near Pleiku. Johnson had already decided to increase bombing, but he wanted a pretext that would make it seem defensive. Bundy meant that, absent the Pleiku attack, another incident would have come along shortly to justify additional bombing. A similar bait-and-switch is occurring today in U.S. Iraq policy.

On August 7, President Obama explained that we were bombing Iraq again to defend U.S. personnel in Erbil and rescue ten of thousands of Yazidi civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar (really mountains) and surrounded by murderous militiamen of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Now, it turns out there were far fewer Yazidis on the mountain than the administration claimed; they are mostly out of harm’s way, and the threat to Erbil has ebbed.

With the two goals he set for bombing achieved, the President quickly offered a third. In the letter sent to Congress on Sunday (pursuant to the War Powers Resolution, which he flouts when it’s inconvenient) the President argued that U.S. bombing would help “Iraqi forces” retake the Mosul dam. Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Special Forces have now done that. 

Monday, the President again broadened the bombing’s objectives. The airstrikes against ISIS still protect U.S. personnel and serve humanitarian purposes, he said, but now, it seems, those are general goals that ongoing bombing serves. The President also suggested that ISIS is a security threat to the United States. Not for the first time, he said that once the new Iraqi government forms, we will “build up” Iraqi military power against ISIS.