In Upholding Obamacare's Subsidies, Justice Roberts Rewrites the Law—Again

Time to start calling the Affordable Care Act SCOTUScare.


Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has rewritten the law to save Obamacare—again.

Roberts' majority opinion today in King v. Burwell, which ruled that the Obama administration's decision to allow health insurance subsidies flow through the law's federal exchanges, leaves no doubt that Roberts considers it his duty to keep the law afloat.  

"Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them," he writes. "If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter."

And so Roberts decided that a law which explicitly and repeatedly states that subsidies are limited to exchanges "established by a State," and which defines "State" as one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia, actually allows subsidies in exchanges established by a State or the federal government. Roberts' decision does not interpret Obamacare; it adds to it and reworks it, and in the process transforms it into something that it is not.

Roberts has not merely tweaked the law; he has rewritten it to mean the opposite of what it clearly means. Why include the phrase "established by a State under Section 1311″—the section dealing with state-based exchanges—except to limit the subsidies to those particular exchanges? Roberts' opinion reconceptualizes this limiting language as inclusive.

The Chief Justice frames his decision as a form of respectful deference to congressional intent. As my colleague Damon Root noted earlier, his opinion cautions that in "every case we must respect the role of the Legislature, and take care not to undo what it has done. A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan."

But Roberts' opinion is far more than a fair reading of the legislative plan; it is a Court-imposed decision as to what that plan must be.

As Justice Antonin Scalia writes in a scathing dissent, Roberts presumes, with no definitive evidence, that his interpretation is the one that Congress intended. "What makes the Court so sure that Congress 'meant' tax credits to be available everywhere?" Scalia asks. "Our only evidence of what Congress meant comes from the terms of the law, and those terms show beyond all question that tax credits are available only on state Exchanges."

Roberts' opinion declares its intent to uphold the law's basic policy scheme, arguing that there would be adverse insurance market effects to a decision in favor of the challengers. In other words, there would have been policy implications to a ruling for the plaintiffs. That is almost certainly true, but it is not an excuse to rewrite the clear language of the law.

As Scalia says in the dissent, "The Court protests that without the tax credits, the number of people covered by the individual mandate shrinks, and without a broadly applicable individual mandate the guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements 'would destabilize the individual insurance market.' If true, these projections would show only that the statutory scheme contains a flaw; they would not show that the statute means the opposite of what it says." The majority has decided how Obamacare's policy scheme should work, and redrafted the statute accordingly.

If Roberts had truly wanted to defer to Congress, he could have ruled that the law means what says rather than what it does not, and effectively handed the issue back to the legislature, letting Congress decide whether and how to update the law in accordance with its own wishes. Instead, Roberts made the choice for Congress—taking its power to craft law for itself. As Scalia writes, "the Court's insistence on making a choice that should be made by Congress both aggrandizes judicial power and encourages congressional lassitude."

This is not the first time that Roberts has rewritten the law in order to uphold it. In 2012, he declared that the law's individual mandate to purchase insurance was unconstitutional under the Constitution's Commerce Clause—and yet upheld it by declaring that the law's penalty was instead permissible as a tax. In the same decision, he also found that the law's threat to revoke all federal Medicaid funding from states that decline to participate in Obamacare's expansion of the program was unconstitutionally coercive. But rather than strike the whole thing down, Roberts rewrote it, allowing the Medicaid expansion, and the rest of the law, to continue but without the same threat to state budgets.

In his dissent, Scalia argues that there's a pattern to these rulings. "Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved."

If anything, it's even worse. What Roberts has saved is not the law so much as the Obama administration's dubious, textually unsupported interpretation and implementation of Obamacare. This is not judicial restraint. It is judicial hubris.

And while it would be overstatement to say that this damages the legitimacy of the Court, it certainly reflects on the legacy and status of the law. As even Roberts admits in his opinion, the law "contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting" and generally "does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation." It is a shoddy, messy piece of legislation, held together, barely, by Supreme Court duct tape. 

At this point, then, the law is as much a joint project between the administration and the Roberts court as it is a creation of Congress. As Scalia snarks at the end of his dissent, "we should start calling this law SCOTUScare." Regardless of what we call it, that's effectively what it has become.