Millions of Americans will breathe a sigh of relief now that the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. By a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court looked beyond the one sentence the plaintiffs hoped would kick fellow Virginians and millions nationwide off their health insurance. The Chief Justice wrote the ruling. Alito, Scalia and Thomas dissented.
The Court held: Held: Section 36B’s tax credits are available to individuals in States that have a Federal Exchange. Pp. 7-21.
This matters because the ruling is more solid than the strictly partisan 5-4 ruling either way, that most of us were dreading.
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As critical as the ACA is to anywhere between six and eight million people, the Court also saved Congressional Republicans from themselves. Okay, nothing stops them from persisting in the unproductive ritual of voting to kill the Affordable Care Act. This time, even if Republicans don’t recognize it, the Supreme Court rescued them from the political fallout that would have came had millions their constituents gotten a notice informing them they no longer had health insurance. Some of their constituents might have even figured out that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same things.
This and the same-sex marriage cases had court watchers speculating about the Court’s ruling in one of the two biggest cases of this term. The Supreme Court rejected a request by Republican activists from Virginia to treat one sentence in the ACA like it was the elephant in the room. Forget the context, legislative intent and for that matter forget the constitution.
That didn’t fly with the majority, as noted by the Chief Justice in the ruling.
The argument that the phrase “established by the State” would be superfluous if Congress meant to extend tax credits to both State and Federal Exchanges is unpersuasive.
Yes, to hear Republicans tell it the ACA is an unconstitutional law. The plaintiffs were convinced of that too though they hoped the court wouldn’t notice the constitutional problem that came with their theory. In fact, Justice Kennedy raised his concerns during the argument. As noted by Eric Citron at Scotusblog,
Justice Kennedy added: namely, state insurance systems will fail if the subsidy/mandate system created by the statute does not operate in that particular state. For Kennedy, that seemed to make this case an echo of the last health care decision, where the Court concluded that it was unconstitutional coercion for the federal government to condition all Medicaid benefits in the state on expanding Medicaid therein.
In honesty, I didn’t know how the court would rule on this case, but looking in retrospect, even if the court wished to overlook the totality of the law, Justice Kennedy told us there was a very strong constitutional argument to be made in support of the law and it was based on the same court’s reasoning the last time conservatives tried to use the Supreme Court to kill the ACA.
In argument, Kennedy raised the fact that state insurance systems will fail if subsidies aren’t available in that state. Therefore, states are effectively coerced into establishing their own exchanges under the plaintiffs’ theory of the case.
According to Citron, the plaintiff’s lawyer didn’t have an answer. Justice Scalia tried to help them, but Kennedy was having none of it.
There is another lesson in this. Even if conservatives on the Supreme Court are willing to overlook things like context, most Supreme Court Justices will not even if it means saving Republicans from themselves.
Image Credit: Bangor Daily News
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