The chief justice said almost nothing.
— Supreme Court Appears Sharply Split in Case on Health Law, Adam Liptak, New York Times
Okay, so how well did my predictions from three days ago hold up at the argument yesterday* in King v. Burwell?
Well, I got the outcome right, but not the particulars of how it will occur. By saying almost nothing, Roberts said everything you need to know: The ACA will remain undisturbed. He will join with the four Dem justices in an opinion that simply invokes standard statutory-interpretation methods that the Court employs when, say, it’s the Tea Party whose interests that long-established mechanism serves. In, y’know, garbage statutes. There’s no way—seriously; there really is no way—that Roberts would sit through 80 minutes of argument, in this of all cases, almost completely silently, if he intended to vote to interpret the four-word phrase at issue as the statute’s challengers ask.
Roberts will leave Kennedy to his federalism obsession—his bizarre the-Civil-War-and-the-Reconstruction-amendments-are-figments-of-the-political-left’s-imagination claims. (Roberts shares this view, but only as a means to specific Conservative Legal Movement ends, such as nullifying the Voting Rights Acts.) Sure, the majority opinion will invoke the fancy the-federal-government-can’t-coerce-the-states-not-even-by-subterfuge federalism ground tailored specially for Kennedy. But it will do so only to undermine the challengers’ belated switch argument: that Congress intended that the subsidies be available only in states that had set up and run their own websites, and that the purpose of the provision in the ACA that provided that the federal government would set up and run websites for individual state healthcare markets in states that do not set up and run their own was to mislead the states about the effect of a failure by the state to set up and operate its own website. (Congress knows better than to try that kind of thing and think it could get away with it! Unless, of course, it knew it wouldn’t get away with it.) Originally, the challengers had argued that the four-word phrase at issue was an inadvertent error.
Congress’s clever ruse was predictably effective, since, as Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Breyer noted, the federally run websites would have no products available and no customers, so the state legislators who bought the head fake weren’t really all that gullible in not catching on.
Then again, as Dahlia Lithwick reported, Scalia commented to Solicitor General Donald Verrilli: “How can the federal government establish a state exchange. That is gobbledygook.” Which surely it is, since although each state has its own separate insurance market under the ACA, available only to residents of the respective state, the ones set up and run by the federal government were intended to have no actual insurance policies available, or customers to buy policies even if one or two policies should happen to pop up on one of those non-state exchanges. And Scalia—no fool, he—does now recognize that that could undermine the challenger’s Plan B argument that Congress gamed this all out and decided to lull the states into a false sense that they could default to the federal government the setup and operation of the exchanges, with no ill effects. Pun intended. So Scalia needed a Plan B to save Plan B as something he could assert in his dissent.
But Scalia’s pointing this out wasn’t really the main gist of what he was up to yesterday. What he really was up to was having his cake and eating it too. He apparently waited until it was becoming clear that Roberts and Kennedy would do the heavy lifting for him and Thomas and Alito, and then largely reverted to his November 2014 garbage-statutes position—that is, to his pre-January 21, pre-Fair Housing Act case argument comments about how the Court normally interprets complex, multi-section federal statutes that intend to establish a coherent policy.
Well, inadvertent garbage, or instead advertent garbage; whatever. Either scenario works in this silly save-us-from-ourselves-please-while-we-protest-too-much kabuki act. Just as Sens. Orrin Hatch, Lamar Alexander, and John Barrasso indicated in a Washington Post op-ed published last Sunday that was unabashedly directed to Roberts, Kennedy and Scalia.
Specifically, this trio opened its message with:
Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about whether the Obama administration used the IRS to deliver health insurance subsidies to Americans in violation of the law. Millions of Americans may lose these subsidies if the court finds that the administration acted illegally. If that occurs, Republicans have a plan to protect Americans harmed by the administration’s actions.
Oh, okay. Republicans have a plan to protect Americans harmed by the administration’s actions that for the last year are providing them with healthcare, by enabling them to continue to have the healthcare insurance that is harming them. In other words: Please, Supreme Court, save our party’s election chances in 2016, just as we quietly asked you a couple of months back, Antonin Scalia, to do. But since it takes only one of you to do this for us, the rest of you don’t have to participate. One sacrificial lamb is all that’s necessary. The rest of you, write a dissent along the lines of … well, I’ll let Greg Sargent explain:
At oral arguments before the Supreme Court yesterday, two of the conservative justices — Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia — both floated versions of the idea that, if the Court does strike down Obamacare subsidies in three dozen states, it might not be that big a deal, because surely lawmakers would then fix the problem and avert disruptions for millions.
This had more significance than it first appeared.
Here are the key quotes. After Solicitor General Donald Verrilli claimed that a Court decision against the law would cut off subsidies “immediately,” producing “very significant, very adverse effects” for “millions of people,” Alito suggested that the Court could side with the challengers but delay the ruling “until the end of this tax year.”
That would mean people would not abruptly lose their subsidies; the suggestion was that if the Court did this, the disruptions might not be immediate, and perhaps somehow contingency plans could come together to soften the blow for those millions of people. Verrilli suggested the Court might have this authority, but disputed whether doing this would actually make much of a difference in practice, because many of the states would be unable to set up exchanges — keeping the subsidies flowing — by the end of the year.
Whereupon this happened:
JUSTICE SCALIA: What about Congress? You really think Congress is just going to sit there while all of these disastrous consequences ensue. I mean, how often have we come out with a decision such as the — you know, the bankruptcy court decision? Congress adjusts, enacts a statute that takes care of the problem. It happens all the time. Why is that not going to happen here?
GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, this Congress, Your Honor, I — I –
That was indeed a richly comic moment! But it was also very significant. The conservative Justices implicitly suggested that the consequences of ruling with the challengers — which Scalia himself termed “disastrous,” though there may have been a hint of sarcasm there — are in fact weighing on the Court, and they themselves floated the idea that a legislative fix might mitigate those consequences.
Sargent goes on to say:
I don’t pretend to know for certain what motivated the conservative justices to say this stuff. But here’s a guess: The idea that a legislative solution might soften the disruptions could make it easier for Anthony Kennedy (who appeared torn over federalism concerns, particularly in light of the punishment that might be inflicted on states) and/or John Roberts (who seemed at least open to the idea that Chevron deference should be accorded to the government) to rule with the challengers.
Okay, well, unlike Sargent, I do pretend to know for certain what motivated the conservative justices to say this stuff. Or at least what motivated Scalia. He just enjoys cake. It’s his favorite dessert. Despite all those calories. Especially when he has the cake and eats it too.
Kennedy will join the majority’s ruling only in its bottom line: the ACA survives in its current interpretation. He’ll write a concurring opinion explaining that this is a necessary outcome, in order to avoid so offending the sovereign dignity of 36 states that, in self-defense, they would enter into a military treaty with Russia and attack Washington using an allied force comprised of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the states’ national guard units. Which itself would violate the Constitution’s design because it obviously would have the effect of coercing the states into increasing their own military budgets significantly.
But Kennedy’s concurrence will be a sideshow.
Laughter. Applause. Curtain.
*Typo-corrected to reflect the day that the post was posted (Thursday), rather than the day when I began writing it, which was Wednesday, the day of the argument. The post also has been edited slightly (and typo-corrected elsewhere) for clarity.