Today the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the widely anticipated case of King v. Burwell, ruling that the language of the statute authorizes tax credits for individuals who use health insurance exchanges set up by the federal government as opposed to the states. The result of the ruling is that the Affordable Care Act continues to operate and that millions of previously uninsured Americans will continue to receive health insurance under ObamaCare. Many observers had predicted an adverse ruling from the Court, and a period of uncertainty (if not chaos) if the use of federal health insurance exchanges was struck down. Today’s ruling by the Court means that there will be no disruption in the workings of the Affordable Care Act. Coupled with this week’s passage of “fast track authority” for a Pacific trade bill, the ruling also cements a record of legislative accomplishment for President Obama that will add to his legacy.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Court voted 6-3 in favor of the Administration’s proffered reading of the statute. Some observers had predicted a narrower margin. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the majority. The Chief Justice’s opinion also was crucial in upholding the Affordable Care Act in the NFIB v. Sebelius case in 2012, and it therefore appears that future historians will inevitably evaluate John Roberts’ career as Chief Justice in light of his prominent role in the survival of ObamaCare.
The Burwell decision itself is an exercise in statutory construction, walking through the process by which judges construe the meaning of a statute’s words. There will be much commentary over the next weeks and months as critics and academics pick through each step in the decision’s laborious analysis of the statutory provision at issue. However, the majority opinion makes two broad points that to my mind provide the foundation for its opinion.
First, the majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts notes that “the statutory scheme compels us to reject petitioners’ interpretation because it would destabilize the individual insurance market in any State with a Federal Exchange, and likely create the very “death spirals” that Congress designed the Act to avoid” (slip opinion at p. 15). Therefore, the majority opinion emphasizes the importance of the legislative intent behind a statute when courts construe an individual sentence or word within that statute. The majority opinion follows with a quote from the Dublino case: “We cannot interpret federal statutes to negate their own stated purposes.”
This is an ancient principle of statutory interpretation, examples of which can be found in nineteenth century opinions by Chief Justice John Marshall and, before that, in the pre-colonial era. However, in recent years some academics and judges have advanced a purely textual method of interpretation, one which focuses on the meaning of words in isolation even if taken out of context. Ironically, this method of giving individual words in the text greater weight than the overall purpose of the drafters has its ideological origins in the work of the leftist philosopher Jacques Derrida, even though it is a method most often embraced today by political conservatives. The Supreme Court’s Burwell decision is a welcome exemplar of a more traditional approach to statutory interpretation.
Second, the majority opinion recognized that the alternative interpretation of the statutory language offered by the law’s challengers was a clever but implausible reading of the statute. The majority characterized the alternative interpretation argued by the challengers and the dissenting Justices in this way:
We doubt that is what Congress meant to do. Had Congress meant to limit tax credits to State Exchanges, it likely would have done so in the definition of “applicable taxpayer” or in some other prominent manner. It would not have used such a winding path of connect-the-dots provisions about the amount of the credit. (slip opinion at p. 20)
This comment reflects a healthy skepticism of judges towards parties with an agenda. Any statute can be subjected to clever parsing and imaginative re-interpretation by critics seeking to undermine a law that they disfavor. The truth, however, is that opponents of the Affordable Care Act had a chance to prevent the law’s passage when it was before Congress, and their efforts failed. This lawsuit’s belated attack on the statutory language is simply an attempt to undo what the legislative process previously accomplished.
Lawsuits of this kind are very different from a challenge asserting that the law passed by Congress violates the Constitution. Instead, such strained statutory readings are an invitation to the Court to re-write the law in a way that no contemporary drafter understood it. If judges fail to interpret statutes with an eye towards the purpose of the law in question, and instead leave the statute vulnerable to endless lawsuits bringing forth creative textualist challenges to the law, then the legislative branch of our government will be seriously undermined. Had the dissenters in Burwell prevailed, one hesitates to imagine the steady stream of legal challenges that might seek to undo just about any act of Congress.
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