Krugman on King v. Burwell

Even by his standards, Paul Krugman uses remarkably ugly and truculent language in challenging the good faith of those who take a view opposed to his on the case of King v. Burwell, just granted certiorari by the Supreme Court following a split among lower courts. Krugman claims that federal judges who rule against his own position on the case are “corrupt, willing to pervert the law to serve political masters.” Yes, that’s really what he writes – you can read it here.

A round of commentary on legal blogs this morning sheds light on whether Krugman knows what he’s talking about. 

“Once upon a time,” Krugman claims, “this lawsuit would have been literally laughed out of court.” [Citation needed, as one commenter put it] The closest Krugman comes to acknowledging that a plain-language reading of the statute runs against him is in the following:

But if you look at the specific language authorizing those subsidies, it could be taken — by an incredibly hostile reader — to say that they’re available only to Americans using state-run exchanges, not to those using the federal exchanges.

New York City lawyer and legal blogger Scott Greenfield responds

If by “incredibly hostile reader,” Krugman means someone with a basic familiarity with the English language, then he’s right.  That’s what the law says. … There is such a thing as a “scrivener’s error,” that the guy who wrote it down made a mistake, left out a word or put in the wrong punctuation, and that the error was not substantive even though it has a disproportionate impact on meaning.  A typo is such an error.  I know typos. This was not a typo. This was not a word misspelled because the scribe erred.  This was a structural error in the law enacted. Should it be corrected? Of course, but that’s a matter for Congress.

While some ObamaCare proponents may now portray the provision as a mere slip in need of correction, as I noted at Overlawyered in July, “ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber had delivered remarks on multiple 2012 occasions suggesting that the lack of subsidies for federally sponsored exchanges served the function (as critics had contended it did) of politically punishing states that refuse to set up exchanges.”

Josh Blackman, meanwhile, points out something incidental yet revealing about Krugman’s column: its homespun introductory anecdote about how his parents discovered that they had been stuck with a mistaken deed to their property, fixed (“of course”) by the town clerk presumably with a few pen strokes and a smile, couldn’t possibly have happened the way Krugman said it did. Property law, much more so than statutory construction, is super-strict about these matters.

If your deed is incorrect, you cannot simply get the “town clerk” to “fix the language”. … Mistakes are enforced by courts. That’s why [everyone] should purchase title insurance. … 

So this is the exact opposite example of what Krugman would want to use to illustrate why King is “frivolous.” If courts applied property doctrine to the construction of statutes, this case would be over in 5 seconds. The government loses. 

To be sure, there may be better arguments with which to defend the Obama administration’s side of the King case. But do not look for them in Paul Krugman’s commentary, which instead seems almost designed to serve the function of pre-gaming a possible defeat in King by casting the federal judiciary itself as “corrupt” and illegitimate.