Rest in peace, whatever was left of respect for the law in the United States. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) clearly states that federal subsidies for lower-income insurance buyers will be available only “through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” It is also clear from the legislative history that Congress intended to provide states an incentive to establish their own exchanges rather than rely on a federally established exchange. This exact language is repeated nine times in the law. However, 34 states did not establish their own exchange. Their exchanges were established by the federal government. This should have made those states ineligible for federal subsidies, but the IRS issued regulations contrary to this provision that allowed subsidies in the 34 states. This provoked a court challenge, King v. Burwell, that went to the Supreme Court.
Today, the Supreme Court ruled that notwithstanding the plain language of the law and the intent of Congress, low-income insurance buyers will receive federal subsidies in all states, including those where exchanges were not established by the state. Justice Scalia’s dissent, excerpted below (with a link to the majority opinion and the full dissent), blows holes in the Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning of the majority of the Court. What it cannot do is address the standing of what is sometimes referred to as “The Law In All Its Majesty.” When words no longer mean what they say, there is no majesty remaining in the law, only the subjective whim of our rulers, which elicits nothing but scorn and contempt. If unelected bureaucrats at the IRS can invalidate a provision in a law duly passed by elected representatives and signed by an elected President, and have that invalidation blessed by an unelected Supreme Court, then the system of government envisioned in the Constitution, long in extremis, is dead.
If bureaucrats and judges can rewrite laws as they see fit, why can’t the people, their theoretical masters, choose or not choose which laws they will follow, or rewrite the laws so they are more to their liking? Tax rate too high? That IRS table doesn’t mean what it says; your tax rate is zero. Don’t like a regulation? Those statutes and Federal Register entries don’t mean what they say; ignore them. Don’t want the government to know about your gun? Registration doesn’t mean registration; don’t register. Don’t trust Federal Reserve Notes? The Legal Tender law doesn’t mean what it says; insist on gold or silver in payment. The possibilities are endless when words don’t mean what they say, when the law is no longer law. And when “They” come for you, saying you broke “Their” laws, resist with everything you’ve got.
Justice Scalia’s dissent is a masterful epitaph for law in America. Most Americans won’t even know that it’s dead, but for the informed, intelligent, and intellectually honest, the decision in King v. Burwell marks a final watershed: the ultimate resting place for America’s long slow slide from a nation of laws to a nation ruled by the whim and designs of an unaccountable few.
Excerpts from Justice Scalia’s dissent, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Alito (link to full majority decision and Justice Scalia’s dissent):
This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an Exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits. You would think the answer would be obvious—so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it. In order to receive any money under §36B, an individual must enroll in an insurance plan through an “Exchange established by the State.” The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not a State. So an Exchange established by the Secretary is not an Exchange established by the State—which means people who buy health insurance through such an Exchange get no money under §36B.
Words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is “established by the State.” It is hard to come up with a clearer way to limit tax credits to state Exchanges than to use the words “established by the State.” And it is hard to come up with a reason to include the words “by the State” other than the purpose of limiting credits to state Exchanges. “[T]he plain, obvious, and rational meaning of a statute is always to be preferred to any curious, narrow, hidden sense that nothing but the exigency of a hard case and the ingenuity and study of an acute and powerful intellect would discover.” Lynch v. Alworth-Stephens Co., 267 U. S. 364, 370 (1925) (internal quotation marks omitted). 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.
Any effort to understand rather than to rewrite a law must accept and apply the presumption that lawmakers use words in “their natural and ordinary signification.” Pensacola Telegraph Co. v. Western Union Telegraph Co., 96 U. S. 1, 12 (1878). Ordinary connotation does not always prevail, but the more unnatural the proposed interpretation of a law, the more compelling the contextual evidence must be to show that it is correct. Today’s interpretation is not merely unnatural; it is unheard of. Who would ever have dreamt that “Exchange established by the State” means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government”? Little short of an express statutory definition could justify adopting this singular reading. Yet the only pertinent definition here provides that “State” means “each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia.” 42 U. S. C. §18024(d). Because the Secretary is neither one of the 50 States nor the District of Columbia, that definition positively contradicts the eccentric theory that an Exchange established by the Secretary has been established by the State.
Far from offering the overwhelming evidence of meaning needed to justify the Court’s interpretation, other contextual clues undermine it at every turn. To begin with, other parts of the Act sharply distinguish between the establishment of an Exchange by a State and the establishment of an Exchange by the Federal Government.
Faced with overwhelming confirmation that “Exchange established by the State” means what it looks like it means, the Court comes up with argument after feeble argument to support its contrary interpretation. None of its tries comes close to establishing the implausible conclusion that Congress used “by the State” to mean “by the State or not by the State.”
The Court has not come close to presenting the compelling contextual case necessary to justify departing from the ordinary meaning of the terms of the law. Quite the contrary, context only underscores the outlandishness of the Court’s interpretation. Reading the Act as a whole leaves no doubt about the matter: “Exchange established by the State” means what it looks like it means.
Worst of all for the repute of today’s decision, the Court’s reasoning is largely self-defeating. The Court predicts that making tax credits unavailable in States that do not set up their own Exchanges would cause disastrous economic consequences there. If that is so, however, wouldn’t one expect States to react by setting up their own Exchanges? And wouldn’t that outcome satisfy two of the Act’s goals rather than just one: enabling the Act’s reforms to work and promoting state involvement in the Act’s implementation? The Court protests that the very existence of a federal fallback shows that Congress expected that some States might fail to set up their own Exchanges. Ante, at 19. So it does. It does not show, however, that Congress expected the number of recalcitrant States to be particularly large. The more accurate the Court’s dire economic predictions, the smaller that number is likely to be. That reality destroys the Court’s pretense that applying the law as written would imperil “the viability of the entire Affordable Care Act.” Ante, at 20. All in all, the Court’s arguments about the law’s purpose and design are no more convincing than its arguments about context.
The Court’s decision reflects the philosophy that judges should endure whatever interpretive distortions it takes in order to correct a supposed flaw in the statutory machinery. That philosophy ignores the American people’s decision to give Congress “[a]ll legislative Powers” enumerated in the Constitution. Art. I, §1. They made Congress, not this Court, responsible for both making laws and mending them. This Court holds only the judicial power—the power to pronounce the law as Congress has enacted it. We lack the prerogative to repair laws that do not work out in practice, just as the people lack the ability to throw us out of office if they dislike the solutions we concoct. We must always remember, therefore, that “[o]ur task is to apply the text, not to improve upon it.” Pavelic & LeFlore v. Marvel Entertainment Group, Div. of Cadence Industries Corp., 493 U. S. 120, 126 (1989).
Trying to make its judge-empowering approach seem respectful of congressional authority, the Court asserts that its decision merely ensures that the Affordable Care Act operates the way Congress “meant [it] to operate.” Ante, at 17. First of all, what makes the Court so sure that Congress “meant” tax credits to be available everywhere? 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. More importantly, the Court forgets that ours is a government of laws and not of men. That means we are governed by the terms of our laws, not by the unenacted will of our lawmakers. “If Congress enacted into law something different from what it intended, then it should amend the statute to conform to its intent.” Lamie, supra, at 542. In the meantime, this Court “has no roving license . . . to disregard clear language simply on the view that . . . Congress ‘must have intended’ something broader.” Bay Mills, 572 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 11).
Even less defensible, if possible, is the Court’s claim that its interpretive approach is justified because this Act “does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation.” Ante, at 14– 15. It is not our place to judge the quality of the care and deliberation that went into this or any other law. A law enacted by voice vote with no deliberation whatever is fully as binding upon us as one enacted after years of study, months of committee hearings, and weeks of debate. Much less is it our place to make everything come out right when Congress does not do its job properly. It is up to Congress to design its laws with care, and it is up to the people to hold them to account if they fail to carry out that responsibility.
Rather than rewriting the law under the pretense of interpreting it, the Court should have left it to Congress to decide what to do about the Act’s limitation of tax credits to state Exchanges. If Congress values above everything else the Act’s applicability across the country, it could make tax credits available in every Exchange. If it prizes state involvement in the Act’s implementation, it could continue to limit tax credits to state Exchanges while taking other steps to mitigate the economic consequences predicted by the Court. If Congress wants to accommodate both goals, it could make tax credits available everywhere while offering new incentives for States to set up their own Exchanges. And if Congress thinks that the present design of the Act works well enough, it could do nothing. Congress could also do something else altogether, entirely abandoning the structure of the Affordable Care Act. The Court’s insistence on making a choice that should be made by Congress both aggrandizes judicial power and encourages congressional lassitude.
Just ponder the significance of the Court’s decision to take matters into its own hands. The Court’s revision of the law authorizes the Internal Revenue Service to spend tens of billions of dollars every year in tax credits on federal Exchanges. It affects the price of insurance for millions of Americans. It diminishes the participation of the States in the implementation of the Act. It vastly expands the reach of the Act’s individual mandate, whose scope depends in part on the availability of credits. What a parody today’s decision makes of Hamilton’s assurances to the people of New York: “The legislature not only commands the purse but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over . . . the purse; no direction . . . of the wealth of society, and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment.” The Federalist No. 78, p. 465 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961).
Today’s opinion changes the usual rules of statutory interpretation for the sake of the Affordable Care Act. That, alas, is not a novelty. In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U. S. ___, this Court revised major components of the statute in order to save them from unconstitutionality. The Act that Congress passed provides that every individual “shall” maintain insurance or else pay a “penalty.” 26 U. S. C. §5000A. This Court, however, saw that the Commerce Clause does not authorize a federal mandate to buy health insurance. So it rewrote the mandate-cum-penalty as a tax. 567 U. S., at ___–___ (principal opinion) (slip op., at 15–45). The Act that Congress passed also requires every State to accept an expansion of its Medicaid program, or else risk losing all Medicaid funding. 42 U. S. C. §1396c. This Court, however, saw that the Spending Clause does not authorize this coercive condition. So it rewrote the law to withhold only the incremental funds associated with the Medicaid expansion. 567 U. S., at ___–___ (principal opinion) (slip op., at 45–58). Having transformed two major parts of the law, the Court today has turned its attention to a third. The Act that Congress passed makes tax credits available only on an “Exchange established by the State.” This Court, however, concludes that this limitation would prevent the rest of the Act from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law to make tax credits available everywhere. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.
Perhaps the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will attain the enduring status of the Social Security Act or the Taft-Hartley Act; perhaps not. But this Court’s two decisions on the Act will surely be remembered through the years. The somersaults of statutory interpretation they have performed (“penalty” means tax, “further [Medicaid] payments to the State” means only incremental Medicaid payments to the State, “established by the State” means not established by the State) will be cited by litigants endlessly, to the confusion of honest jurisprudence. And the cases will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.