Thursday, December 19, 2019
The Fifth Circuit yesterday ruled that the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate is unconstitutional. At the same time, the court remanded to the district court to reconsider whether the individual mandate is severable from the rest of the Act (and therefore whether other portions of the Act can stand) and to consider the government's new request for relief.
We posted on the district court's ruling here.
The ruling is a big victory for opponents of the ACA, especially the individual mandate. But whether the case also strikes other portions of the ACA, and how far the ruling sweeps, are still undetermined.
The three-judge panel ruled that the individual mandate cannot stand as an exercise of Congress's taxing power, because Congress set the tax penalty at $0. With no revenue potential, the provision cannot be a tax:
Now that the shared responsibility payment amount is set at zero, the provision's savings construction [the NFIB ruling that the individual mandate is a valid exercise of Congress's taxing power] is no longer available. The four central attributes that once saved the statute because it could be read as a tax no longer exist. Most fundamentally, the provision no longer yields the "essential feature of any tax" because it does not produce "at least some revenue for the Government." Because the provision no longer produces revenue, it necessarily lacks the three other characteristics that once rendered the provision a tax. The shared-responsibility payment is no longer "paid into the Treasure by taxpayer[s] when they file their tax returns" because the payment is no longer paid by anyone. The payment amount is no longer "determined by such familiar factors as taxable income, number of dependents, and joint filing status." The amount is zero for everyone, without regard to any of these factors. The IRS no longer collects the payment "in the same manner as taxes" because the IRS cannot collect it at all.
The court went on to say that the district court failed to consider carefully enough whether the individual mandate is severable from the rest of the Act--that is, whether other provisions of the ACA can stand without the individual mandate. (The government switched its position on appeal and argued that the mandate is inseverable.) The district court previously ruled that it wasn't severable, and thus struck the entire Act, including the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions, but also including every other provision (like the provision that says young people can stay on their parents' insurance until age 26). But the Fifth Circuit held that the district court's analysis wasn't sufficient, and remanded to the court "to employ a finer-toothed comb . . . and conduct a more searching inquiry into which provisions of the ACA Congress intended to be inseverable from the individual mandate."
The court also directed the lower court to consider the government's new request for relief. The government switched positions on appeal and argued that, while the individual mandate is inseverable, the court should enjoin enforcement only as to the plaintiff states and only as to those provisions that injure the plaintiffs.
In short, while yesterday's ruling struck the individual mandate, it's not yet clear exactly how far that ruling will extend to also strike other provisions of the ACA, how far it will extend geographically, and how far it will extend beyond the plaintiffs in this case.
Judge King dissented, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing, and that (in any event) the individual mandate was constitutional.