Wednesday, March 4, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in King v. Burwell, the case testing whether IRS tax subsidies to health-insurance purchasers on a federally-facilitated exchange violate the ACA. We posted our oral argument preview here.
There were no huge surprises, and questions from the bench mostly aligned with conventional beliefs about the Justices' politics (with Chief Justice Roberts, in his near silence, declining to tilt his hand at all).
But questions from Justice Kennedy--one to watch here (along with Chief Justice Roberts)--suggested that federalism principles and constitutional avoidance may drive the case. (That assumes that Justice Kennedy controls the center in the case.) This could be an elegant way for a conservative Justice to uphold the subsidies, because it's rooted in the challengers' argument itself (and not the government's case). In other words, a conservative Justice could accept the challengers' premise, but still uphold the subsidies.
Justice Kennedy at several points raised federalism concerns about the challengers' case: If the challengers are right that Congress designed the ACA so that all states would establish their own exchange (on threat of the death spiral that would result if they defaulted to a federally-facilitated exchange, without tax subsidies), then isn't that coercion in violation of federalism principles? And if that's so, shouldn't the Court reject the challengers' reading for constitutional avoidance reasons? Here he puts the question to Michael Carvin, arguing for the ACA challengers:
Let me say that from the standpoint of the dynamics of Federalism, it does seem to me that there is something very powerful to the point that if your argument is accepted, the States are being told either create your own Exchange, or we'll send your insurance market into a death spiral. We'll have people pay mandated taxes which will not get any credit on -- on the subsidies. The cost of insurance will be sky-high, but this is not coercion. It seems to me that under your argument, perhaps you will prevail in the plain words of the statute, there's a serious constitutional problem if we adopt your argument.
Later, he made a similar point with General Verrilli: "Because it does seem to me that if Petitioners' argument is correct, this is just not a rational choice for the States to make and that they're being coerced. And that you then have to invoke the standard of constitutional avoidance."
But in terms of constitutional avoidance, Justice Kennedy qualified his earlier statement to Carvin: "It may well be that you're correct as to these words, and there's nothing we can do. I understand that." Justice Kennedy also later seemed concerned with the government's Chevron argument, pointing out that a statute that costs billions of dollars in tax subsidies has to be absolutely clear.
Carvin argued that the ACA didn't create coercion for the states to establish their own exchanges. But he may have painted himself into a corner with the argument, because his argument also assumes that Congress thought all 50 states would establish an exchange, and, as Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan pointed out, the portion of the ACA establishing a federally-facilitated exchange would be superfluous if all 50 states set up their own exchanges. They also pointed out that he had a different position in the last ACA challenge. Chief Justice Roberts rescued him, though, reminding everyone that he lost.
Most of the rest of the argument involved predictable statutory construction arguments, with no clear winner or loser. Maybe the only surprise was Justice Scalia's cramped reading of the four words, seemingly at odds with his approach (stated at oral argument earlier just this Term) to consider the context and entire statutory scheme when interpreting any individual provision.
Justice Ginsburg noted that standing is an issue, and that the Court can address it itself. Some of the other Justices fished a little around the question with General Verrilli. But in the end, General Verrilli didn't press the point and instead assumed that "because Mr. Carvin has not said anything about the absence of a tax penalty," that at least two plaintiffs still have standing.