Obamacare Oral Argument: Still a Winner

The following post is written by Bill Levin, a friend and former colleague at the Office of Legal Counsel. Bill has been closely following the King v. Burwell litigation. For his previous posts, see here and here

How will the Supreme Court rule in King v. Burwell based on last Wednesday’s oral argument?

On Power Line, Paul Mirengoff judiciously concludes that the odds modestly favor the government: an implacable four-vote liberal bloc is potentially joined by a surprise vote from Justice Kennedy, on a theory of constitutional avoidance, plus the risk posed by Chief Justice Roberts, who said nothing one way or the other during oral argument to change the betting line.

An alternative view, argued here, is that oral argument justifies continued high optimism that the King plaintiffs prevail.

The key lies in the three-clerk hypothetical put by Justice Kagan to plaintiffs’ counsel, Michael Carvin:

JUSTICE KAGAN: [Can] I offer you a sort of simple daily life kind of example which I think is linguistically equivalent to what the sections here say that Justice Breyer was talking about? So I have three clerks, Mr. Carvin. Their names are Will and Elizabeth and Amanda. Okay? So my first clerk, I say, Will, I’d like you to write me a memo. And I say, Elizabeth, I want you to edit Will’s memo once he’s done. And then I say, Amanda, listen, if Will is too busy to write the memo, I want you to write such memo. Now, my question is: If Will is too busy to write the memo and Amanda has to write such memo, should Elizabeth edit the memo? (Laughter.)

While the exchange elicited a sharp laugh from the audience, it deserves serious post-argument comment for its wholly unfunny legal import.

What was Justice Kagan’s point in this far afield hypo, an exercise beloved of judges and the stuff of nightmares for practicing attorneys everywhere?

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Obamacare Meets Rudy

Yesterday’s extended argument in King v. Burwell brought moments of something bordering on joy and gratitude. The exchanges between Justice Elena Kagan and Mike Carvin, both at their very considerable best, stand out: serious questions, serious answers; obvious mutual respect. No matter whose side (if any) you’re on, that’s the way the system is supposed to operate. Give thanks when it (still) does. And then, there were moments that made your heart sink: JUSTICE SCALIA: What about Congress? You really think Congress is just going to sit there while—while all of these disastrous consequences ensue. I mean, how often have we come out…

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Trust Us, We’re the IRS

IRS

I am a faithful subscriber to the Washington Post: morning after morning, it makes for merriment. Its editorial and op-ed pages, for instance, have been given over for weeks to the regurgitation of ACA defenses cranked up in New Haven or in the PR offices of the country’s health care lobbies (interspersed with an occasional George Will column). Then yesterday, the Post (printed version) conveniently supplied a long piece detailing “Five Myths About King v. Burwell”—written by a pro-ACA advocate in the litigation, who nonetheless earnestly professed to sort “fact from fiction” in the case. That was a good one.

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Federalism’s New Defenders: Obamacare Supporters

kaiser

Thirty amicus briefs have been filed in support of the government’s position in King v. Burwell. Tim Jost, a leading academic champion (after the late Jonathan Gruber’s self-inflicted defenestration, the leading champion) of the ACA, summarizes them here. This may be a bit of overkill (the justices generally don’t like to be bullied or harangued), but we’ll see.

Numerous briefs come from hospital associations, doctors’ groups, and of course America’s Health Insurance Plans. By helping the ACA over the hurdle, AHIP signed its corporate members’ death warrant in exchange for the individual mandate, risk corridors, and a few other placebos. AHIP had the railroad cars to the camps neatly lined up; now, some plaintiffs are messing—after NFIB, a second time—with the tracks: how dare they.

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DOJ’s Reply Brief in King: They’re under Water and They Know It

I haven’t had much time to parse the government’s reply brief in King v. Burwell. A few quick reactions:

They Know They Lose. Start of the brief (“Statement”):

The Affordable Care Act was enacted to provide “Quality, Affordable Health Care for All Americans.” Tit. I, 124 Stat. 130 (emphasis added).

An all emphasis, without more (and Congress ensured that comprehensive reach …) signals that the rest is junk. (You’re trying to make a single word trump the entire instrument.)

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How to Avoid Argentine Federalism

James L. Buckley is a former U.S. Senator, federal judge, and real-life saint. The Federalist Society’s 2014 Annual Convention featured a presentation and panel discussion on his most recent book, Saving Congress from Itself. As the title suggests, Jim Buckley—even at age 91—is into tasks that are kind of biggish. His key proposal is to phase out any and all federal transfer payments to state and local governments.

Robert R. Gasaway (Kirkland & Ellis—once upon a time, Judge Buckley’s law clerk) chaired the panel composed of Senator Buckley, John Eastman (Chapman Law School), and yours truly. Pending FedSoc’s posting of the video, my humble remarks appear below. More fodder for my friend Linda Greenhouse, I suppose.

Saving Congress from Itself is a must-buy and must-read. I wish I could write like that.

 

God bless Senator James Buckley.

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D.I.G. King v. Burwell?

GruberThe hubbub over the ACA is getting weirder and weirder. Amidst other revelations, there appears to be an extensive but as-yet undisclosed legislative history bearing on the pending Supreme Court litigation in King v. Burwell. One surprise at a time, though:

Professor Jonathan Gruber has by now well earned the George Washington Cherry Tree Award. Congenitally incapable of telling a lie, he blurts out an inconvenient truth about the act every time he opens his mouth. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Tevi Troy unveils “Another ObamaCare Deception” cheerfully revealed by Professor Gruber, this one having to do with an artfully disguised tax on “Cadillac” health plans that will eventually encompass Chevys.

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More on the Consequences of a Supreme Court Decision in the Obamacare Case

In my last post, I wrote about the consequences if Obamacare loses in the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell.  My basic point is that a Supreme Court decision holding that federal exchanges cannot receive subsidies will create an enormous fight between President Obama and the Republican Congress. Bill Levin, who recently wrote a post on the cert grant at this site, now has a post at Powerline addressing the same issue. I strongly recommend his post.

Bill is more optimistic than I am about the effects of such a Supreme Court decision. One of his main arguments is that the public understands that the Democrats are responsible for Obamacare and that any problems it has will be seen as the fault of the Democrats. Perhaps, but this would have to be true even though the five Republican justices decide that the subsidies are illegal over the votes of the four Democratic justices.

Ultimately, the biggest advantage that the Democrats have is that the media is on their side. They will portray the dispute as having been caused by the five Republican justices and will argue that the Republicans can easily fix the problem by simply returning to the status quo. It may be that the Republicans can prevail, but they will have to do so over the heads of the media.

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What Happens if Obamacare Loses in the Supreme Court?

Let’s say that the Supreme Court holds, in the King v. Burwell case involving federal exchanges, that such exchanges are not legally permitted to receive subsidies. This holding would create an enormous problem for Obamacare, since individuals in a large number of states would not be receiving subsidies. Clearly, a legislative change would be required. What then?

It has generally been assumed that this legislative change would be beneficial to opponents of Obamacare, as compared to the current situation. Under the current situation, once Republicans control both houses in January, they can pass modifications of Obamacare, but it is assumed that Obama will simply veto them.  The default situation—the regmine without a new law—is the continuation of Obamacare, which Obama likes. But if the Supreme Court holds the subsidies for federal exchanges illegal, the default situation changes: no subsidies for federal exchanges. And therefore one might argue that the Republicans are better off in this situation.

Perhaps. But things are more complicated. The default situation, if the Supreme Court holds the subsidies illegal, is similar to (although distinct from) the default under spending bills. If Obama vetoes a spending bill, the government often closes down. While one might believe that this would pressure him into approving Republican measures, it often doesn’t. The press—who often behave, as Glenn Reynolds puts it, as Democratic operatives with bylines—will usually report the shutdown in a biased way and the Republicans will be forced to compromise. If this happens with federal exchange subsidies—a likely possibility, even though Obama is losing support in the press—then the Republicans may be in a more difficult position than many people appear to assume.

Part of the issue turns on what will happen to people who lose the subsidies. If they lose their health insurance, then the Republicans are likely to be blamed by the press. If the Republican Congress does not give Obama what he wants, then states may choose to adopt exchanges in order not to lose the subsidies.  One issue favoring the Republicans is that the employer mandate will not apply to states with federal exchanges. In addition, the people who lose the subsidies are likely not to be covered by the individual mandate.  

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Bill Levin on The Worm Turns: King v. Burwell

My friend and former colleague from the Office of Legal Counsel, Bill Levin, has been following the Halbig case closely.  Here are his thoughts on the Supreme Court’s cert grant.  For his previous thoughts on the case, see here

First, election night and now the highly significant decision by the Supreme Court to grant cert in the Obamacare tax subsidy case, King v. Burwell.

After such a week, it is justifiable to speculate as to why the court accepted King.

The initial item of interest is timing.  The case was considered by the Court in normal course at its October 31 Conference, but relisted to November 7 when cert was granted.  It is utterly plausible, though unprovable, to assume the Court did not want a high profile determination released just days before the mid-term elections.

The conventional wisdom was that the Court would deny cert since there is presently no split in the circuits, following the D.C. Circuit grant of en banc review vacating the Halbig decision.  In days to come it will surely be repeated ad nauseam on the left that the Court is indulging in politics by taking King out of normal order.

Professor Rappaport on this site correctly bucked the conventional wisdom in predicting cert acceptance.  His reasoning, that four of the five conservative justices would refuse to let stand the D.C. Circuit end run to vacate Halbig, is appealing from a visceral perspective.  The D.C. Circuit vacated the decision in Halbig, but not the panel’s well-reasoned opinion.  From every practical perspective, a fully litigated split in the circuit currently exists with respect to the correct statutory construction of the ACA.

Regardless, King independently justifies expedient resolution on standard grounds.

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