Conservative Judges Are Ganging up to Steal Your Affordable Healthcare
Tuesday morning, two competing courts – and the conservative judges turned silent partisan assassins that dominate them – put at risk the affordable health insurance on which millions of Americans have already come to rely. These six robed men in Washington and Virginia, within about two hours, have now set up yet another US supreme court showdown on the Obamacare law Republicans on Capitol Hill just couldn't kill, despite trying more than 50 times.
Up first: an outrageous two-to-one decision by a panel of the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruling against sensible subsidies that real people need, based on what we can charitably called the "reasoning" of the two Republican nominees on the three-judge panel – the opinion was written by an appointee of George HW Bush, along with a judge nominated by his son.
They were asked to decide on the legality of the subsidies based on the precise wording of the Affordable Care Act, which provided health benefits to non-affluent Americans purchasing insurance from federal exchanges newly established under President Obama's signature health-care law. In the literal language of the statute, subsidies are available to those purchasing insurance on "state exchanges", although a majority of exchanges were ultimately established in the states by the federal government because of state-level Republican hostility to the law. Sensibly, the Internal Revenue Service allowed anyone who purchased from any exchange – federal or state – to qualify for the subsidies.
The Bush-appointed judges, however, aren't much for being sensible: they ruled instead that only those who purchase insurance from the exchanges established by the states are allowed subsidies.
In what can only be described as black comedy, the majority opinion concludes with paeans to judicial restraint. (One is reminded of Lewis Carroll's Walrus, "deeply sympathizing" with oysters prior to having "eaten every one".) "We reach this conclusion, frankly, with reluctance," the majority wrote, going on to concede the following:
[O]ur ruling will likely have significant consequences both for the millions of individuals receiving tax credits through federal Exchanges and for health insurance markets more broadly.
But they are compelled, you see, to inflict these consequences as a means of "ensuring that policy is made by elected, politically accountable representatives, not by appointed, life-tenured judges." For two judges to subvert the clear purpose of the law in the name of judicial restraint is, to borrow Justice William Brennan's phrase, arrogance cloaked as humility.
The sole dissenting judge, Harry Edwards, in his tour de force dissent, made clear his distaste for appointed judges making new law – and pointed out that the majority opinion requires the courts to ignore all the sound principles of statutory construction.
Congress clearly thought the subsidies were essential to the functioning of the exchanges, and it permitted the federal government to establish exchanges in order to prevent states from thwarting the aims of the ACA – which is to help people buy more affordable health insurance.
The majority's reading, however, would allow hostile states to do exactly what the law was designed to prevent: by refusing to establish a state exchanges, they could effectively stop all the exchanges from working properly.
As Edwards observes, the majority’s interpretation "is implausible because it would destroy the fundamental policy structure and goals of the ACA that are apparent when the statute is read as a whole". Plus, not a single state government – even those hostile to the law – believed that the statute demands what the majority says it does. Nobody is confused about what the law intended, but some people who oppose the ACA on political grounds are opportunistically pretending to be.
Meanwhile, just across the Potomac River, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was charged with hearing a different case on the same question. But it ruled in favor of the administration, effectively siding with the first ruling's minority opinion. That's the sort of legal dichotomy – however strange the buzzer-beater timing – that pretty much guarantees the supreme court will ultimately answer this question for all the Americans using the federal exchanges.
That's slim comfort for some: while most of the law narrowly survived a constitutional challenge that made it to the supreme court, the number of Americans covered by it would be much higher had the court not usedbafflingly illogical reasoning to re-write the act's Medicaid expansion in a separate ruling, which made it easier for states to opt out of that provision.
That's all part of the Republican strategy, of course: once they lost their battle in Congress to ensure that as many non-affluent Americans as possible would continue to experience the "freedom" of going without health insurance coverage, they’ve been throwing ad hoc legal arguments at the ACA, hoping that something would stick.
Don’t be fooled that the judges who hear these challenges are not influenced by the ongoing political partisanship. As Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress demonstrated, both judges who ruled against the subsidies today are highly partisan Republicans.
Despite Republican efforts, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine published last week found that 20m Americans are now covered by the exchanges and Medicaid expansion created by the Affordable Care Act. For all its imperfections, the law is a striking policy success and has done a great deal to address a major national problem. However, the Republican party – and most of its agents on the federal courts – would still prefer the number of Americans who benefit from the law to be much lower, as evidenced by their legal strategy.
The only good news is that this decision against the subsidies may not stand. The federal government is expected to appeal for a hearing from the entire DC circuit court, and it is unlikely that the full court would reach the same conclusion. It's also far from clear that opponents' argument could command a majority of the supreme court, where the cases are probably headed.
But it's still remarkable that an argument this legally weak – and with such destructive human consequences – could command support from the majority of an appellate panel. Given the active Republican host