So the Supreme Court has handed down its decision in King v. Burwell, the second “Obamacare” decision. This one was not 5-4, but 6-3, and upheld the “subsidy” for non-state exchanges that was the key question at stake.
Ten years ago I wrote a piece on judicial activism where another Arizona blog had tried to define the meaning of the phrase as how often judges invalidate “law duly passed by Congress.” I wrote:
I thought part of the “checks and balances” function of the Judicial branch was to, you know, check the power of the Legislative branch? Not merely rubber-stamp its legislation. If Congress overreaches the powers delegated to it under the Constitution, the Courts are supposed to rein it in. This is to protect the rights of the minority against the power of majorities. As Justice Scalia (56.25%) has put it, “The only reason you need a constitution is because some things you don’t want the majority to be able to change. That’s my most important function as a judge in this system. I have to tell the majority to take a hike.”
“Activism” on the court, on the other hand, is inventing law – finding things in laws already written that were never intended. As 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski put it, “build(ing) magnificent legal edifices on elliptical constitutional phrases – or even the white spaces between lines of constitutional text.” Creating law is a power reserved to the legislative branch by the Constitution.
Justice Scalia wrote the dissent in Burwell. As most Scalia opinions are, this one is powerful and eloquent.
And factually accurate:
This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an Exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits. You would think the answer would be obvious—so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it. In order to receive any money under §36B, an individual must enroll in an insurance plan through an “Exchange established by the State.” The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not a State. So an Exchange established by the Secretary is not an Exchange established by the State—which means people who buy health insurance through such an Exchange get no money under §36B.
Words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is “established by the State.” It is hard to come up with a clearer way to limit tax credits to state Exchanges than to use the words “established by the State.” And it is hard to come up with a reason to include the words “by the State” other than the purpose of limiting credits to state Exchanges. “[T]he plain, obvious, and rational meaning of a statute is always to be preferred to any curious, narrow, hidden sense that nothing but the exigency of a hard case and the ingenuity and study of an acute and powerful intellect would discover.” Lynch v. Alworth-Stephens Co., 267 U. S. 364, 370 (1925) (internal quotation marks omitted). Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved.
When I wrote that piece ten years ago, I found a column by the irreplaceable Thomas Sowell also on judicial activism. In it he wrote:
“Judicial activism” and “judicial restraint” raise logically obvious but often ignored questions: Activism toward what?
Well, obviously in this case: “The Affordable Care Act must be saved.”
Scalia further on:
It is probably piling on to add that the Congress that wrote the Affordable Care Act knew how to equate two different types of Exchanges when it wanted to do so. The Act includes a clause providing that “[a] territory that . . . establishes . . . an Exchange . . . shall be treated as a State” for certain purposes. §18043(a) (emphasis added). Tellingly, it does not include a comparable clause providing that the Secretary shall be treated as a State for purposes of §36B when she establishes an Exchange.
He isn’t shy about using a sledgehammer when he feels it necessary.
For its next defense of the indefensible, the Court turns to the Affordable Care Act’s design and purposes. As relevant here, the Act makes three major reforms. The guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements prohibit insurers from considering a customer’s health when deciding whether to sell insurance and how much to charge, 42 U. S. C. §§300gg, 300gg–1; its famous individual mandate requires everyone to maintain insurance coverage or to pay what the Act calls a “penalty,” 26 U. S. C. §5000A(b)(1), and what we have nonetheless called a tax, see National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U. S. ___, ___ (2012) (slip op., at 39); and its tax credits help make insurance more affordable.
The Court reasons that Congress intended these three reforms to “work together to expand insurance coverage”; and because the first two apply in every State, so must the third.
This reasoning suffers from no shortage of flaws. To begin with, “even the most formidable argument concerning the statute’s purposes could not overcome the clarity [of] the statute’s text.” Kloeckner v. Solis, (2012). Statutory design and purpose matter only to the extent they help clarify an otherwise ambiguous provision. Could anyone maintain with a straight face that §36B is unclear? To mention just the highlights, the Court’s interpretation clashes with a statutory definition, renders words inoperative in at least seven separate provisions of the Act, overlooks the contrast between provisions that say “Exchange” and those that say “Exchange established by the State,” gives the same phrase one meaning for purposes of tax credits but an entirely different meaning for other purposes, and (let us not forget) contradicts the ordinary meaning of the words Congress used. On the other side of the ledger, the Court has come up with no thing more than a general provision that turns out to be controlled by a specific one, a handful of clauses that are consistent with either understanding of establishment by the State, and a resemblance between the tax-credit provision and the rest of the Tax Code. If that is all it takes to make something ambiguous, everything is ambiguous.
Having gone wrong in consulting statutory purpose at all, the Court goes wrong again in analyzing it. The purposes of a law must be “collected chiefly from its words,” not “from extrinsic circumstances.” Sturges v. Crowninshield, (1819). Only by concentrating on the law’s terms can a judge hope to uncover the scheme of the statute, rather than some other scheme that the judge thinks desirable. Like it or not, the express terms of the Affordable Care Act make only two of the three reforms mentioned by the Court applicable in States that do not establish Exchanges. It is perfectly possible for them to operate independently of tax credits. The guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements continue to ensure that insurance companies treat all customers the same no matter their health, and the individual mandate continues to encourage people to maintain coverage, lest they be “taxed.”
The Court protests that without the tax credits, the number of people covered by the individual mandate shrinks, and without a broadly applicable individual mandate the guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements “would destabilize the individual insurance market.” If true, these projections would show only that the statutory scheme contains a flaw; they would not show that the statute means the opposite of what it says.
Here I’d like to interject a quote from the dissent to Home Building and Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934):
I quite agree with the opinion of the court that whether the legislation under review is wise or unwise is a matter with which we have nothing to do. Whether it is likely to work well or work ill presents a question entirely irrelevant to the issue.
Blaisdell considered a Constitutional question, but the argument is the same: It isn’t the Court’s job to determine if a law is good or not. The Constitution does not give the Judicial Branch the power to make law. That power is reserved to the Legislative branch only. If the Legislative branch does a bad job, then The People have the power to elect new legislators. If the JUDICIAL branch does a bad job, The People have less recourse.
The Court’s decision reflects the philosophy that judges should endure whatever interpretive distortions it takes in order to correct a supposed flaw in the statutory machinery. That philosophy ignores the American people’s decision to give Congress “[a]ll legislative Powers” enumerated in the Constitution. Art. I, §1. They made Congress, not this Court, responsible for both making laws and mending them. This Court holds only the judicial power—the power to pronounce the law as Congress has enacted it. We lack the prerogative to repair laws that do not work out in practice, just as the people lack the ability to throw us out of office if they dislike the solutions we concoct. We must always remember, therefore, that “[o]ur task is to apply the text, not to improve upon it.” Pavelic & LeFlore v. Marvel Entertainment Group, Div. of Cadence Industries Corp. (1989).
More importantly, the Court forgets that ours is a government of laws and not of men. That means we are governed by the terms of our laws, not by the unenacted will of our lawmakers. “If Congress enacted into law something different from what it intended, then it should amend the statute to conform to its intent.” Lamie, supra, at 542. In the meantime, this Court “has no roving license. . . to disregard clear language simply on the view that . . . Congress ‘must have intended’ something broader.” Bay Mills, 572 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 11).
Even less defensible, if possible, is the Court’s claim that its interpretive approach is justified because this Act “does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation.” It is not our place to judge the quality of the care and deliberation that went into this or any other law. A law enacted by voice vote with no deliberation whatever is fully as binding upon us as one enacted after years of study, months of committee hearings, and weeks of debate. Much less is it our place to make everything come out right when Congress does not do its job properly. It is up to Congress to design its laws with care, and it is up to the people to hold them to account if they fail to carry out that responsibility.
Rather than rewriting the law under the pretense of interpreting it, the Court should have left it to Congress to decide what to do about the Act’s limitation of tax credits to state Exchanges. If Congress values above everything else the Act’s applicability across the country, it could make tax credits available in every Exchange. If it prizes state involvement in the Act’s implementation, it could continue to limit tax credits to state Exchanges while taking other steps to mitigate the economic consequences predicted by the Court. If Congress wants to accommodate both goals, it could make tax credits available every where while offering new incentives for States to set up their own Exchanges. And if Congress thinks that the present design of the Act works well enough, it could do nothing. Congress could also do something else altogether, entirely abandoning the structure of the Affordable Care Act. The Court’s insistence on making a choice that should be made by Congress both aggrandizes judicial power and encourages congressional lassitude.
Just ponder the significance of the Court’s decision to take matters into its own hands. The Court’s revision of the law authorizes the Internal Revenue Service to spend tens of billions of dollars every year in tax credits on federal Exchanges. It affects the price of insurance for millions of Americans. It diminishes the participation of the States in the implementation of the Act. It vastly expands the reach of the Act’s individual mandate, whose scope depends in part on the availability of credits. What a parody today’s decision makes of Hamilton’s assurances to the people of New York: “The legislature not only commands the purse but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over . . . the purse; no direction . . . of the wealth of society, and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment.”
That is what this Court did today. As Scalia correctly points out, the overriding principle here is, “The Affordable Care Act must be saved.” Because the intent of the legislation must be good.
And THAT is “judicial activism” – rule of men, not of law. And that was what the Constitution was written to prevent.
Also: Read this post from 2010. It’s short, and relevant. And Chief Justice Roberts is no “conservative.”