John Roberts Rewrites Obamacare Yet Again

“If we give the phrase ‘the State that established the Exchange’ its most natural meaning, there would be no ‘qualified individuals’ on Federal Exchanges.” You’d think that I pulled that phrase from Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion in today’s big Obamacare ruling—it makes clear that Congress said what it meant in the ACA, giving states the incentive to create exchanges by making their citizens eligible for tax credits if they do—but you’d be wrong.

It comes from the pen of Chief Justice Roberts, who admits, as he did three years ago in the individual-mandate case, that those challenging the administration are correct on the law. Nevertheless, again as he did before, Roberts contorts himself to eviscerate that “natural meaning” and rewrite Congress’s inartfully concocted scheme, this time such that “exchange established by the state” means “any old exchange.” Scalia rightly calls this novel interpretation “absurd.”

Of course, Roberts explains his transmogrification by finding it “implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner,” to deny subsidies to millions of people as part of legislation intended to expanded coverage. But it’s hardly implausible to think that legislation that still says that states “shall” set up exchanges—the drafters forgot to fix this bit after lawyers pointed out that Congress can’t command states to do anything—would effectively give states an offer nobody thought they’d refuse. It was supposed to be a win-win: states rather than the federal government would run health care exchanges (yay federalism!) and all those who need subsidies to afford Obamacare policies would get them (yay universal healthcare!).

But a funny thing happened on the way to utopia, and only 14 states (plus D.C.) took that too-tempting offer, perhaps having been burned too many times before by the regulations that accompany any pots of “free” federal money. And that’s why we ended up with King v. Burwell: Obamacare the reality doesn’t accomplish Obamacare the dream. That may not be the absolutely, 100-percent correct reading of the Affordable Care Act. But it’s nothing if not plausible.

That should’ve been the end of the story: the clear text of the statute produces a plausible result, so courts should enforce that “natural meaning.” Alas, as Justice Scalia put it, “normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved.”

The best that can be said about today’s ruling is that it explicitly disclaimed any reliance on so-called Chevron deference, the idea that courts should almost always defer to executive-agency interpretations of statutes—including on questions of their own authority. That pernicious bit of 1984 jurisprudence has enabled the administrative state to explode in the last three decades and, had Roberts relied on it, would really have allowed the executive branch to legislate without any real limit. Instead, again like three years ago, we have a horrendous bit of word play that violates all applicable canons of statutory interpretation to preserve the operation of a unpopular program that has done untold damage to the economy and health care system.

No, instead of allowing agencies to rewrite the law, the Supreme Court today gave itself that power. We might as well call the law at issue RobertsCare.