The Obamacare case, King v. Burwell, which the Court will hear next week, has deep importance not only for health care but also for law. I have previously detailed why the case is textualism’s big test. Today, in Politico, I explain why the case is also fundamentally about state rights. The question is whether the Court’s federalism doctrines–which, let’s not forget, the Court applied against the Government in the last Obamacare case–whether these federalism doctrines, like the Court’s textualist rules, are sufficiently legitimate and objective such they will apply regardless of which side they happen to support, even in a case as politicized as this one. After all, isn’t that the point of have a rule of law in the first place?
Here is an excerpt and a link.
The issue in King is whether the ACA penalizes states that opt out of setting up their own health insurance exchanges and, instead, let the federal government do it for them. The challengers have seized on four words in this 2,000-page law that, they contend, contain a dramatic consequence for the 34 states that have made this choice and allowed the federal government to step in: the loss of critical insurance subsidies that make health insurance affordable and sustain the insurance markets under the law. Without the subsidies—which are estimated at $25 billion across the 34 states—more than eight million Americans will likely lose their insurance. And, as a result, the insurance markets in those states will face near-certain collapse.
The challengers maintain that the case is simply about reading plain language. (I have detailed elsewhere why their hyper-literal reading of four words out of context is anything but plain and is not how the Supreme Court usually reads statutes.) But King is about a lot more than this. The case is about federalism—the role of states in our national democracy. The reason the challengers don’t want anyone to realize that is because the very text-oriented justices to whom they are appealing are the exact same justices who have consistently interpreted federal laws to protect states’ rights. And the challengers would read the ACA in the opposite way—as having devastating implications for the states.
The challengers’ interpretation turns Congress’s entire philosophy of states’ rights in the ACA upside down. Congress designed the exchanges to be state-deferential—to give the states a choice. But under the state-penalizing reading that challengers urge, the ACA—a statute that uses the phrase “state flexibility” five times—would be the most draconian modern statute ever enacted by the U.S. Congress that included a role for the states. What’s more, if interpreted as the challengers hope, the ACA would have been debated, enacted and implemented for two whole years under intense public scrutiny, including the scrutiny trained on it during the last major constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court in 2012, without anyone—no state, congressman or blogger—noticing these consequences or objecting to them.
A brief filed by Virginia and more than 20 other states attests that any clue of the dramatic penalty the challengers have read into the statute was entirely lacking. In the end, King is about whether an invented narrative that only emerged for purposes of this case should be permitted to work the greatest bait and switch on state governments in history.