June 26, 2015

YUVAL LEVIN: King v. Burwell and the Law:

Replacing this law with a market-based reform remains as crucial as ever, and should be (and very likely will be) a very high priority for the next Republican presidential nominee. This case accelerated some of the relevant work and internal debates on that front on the Right, but, given how it has been decided, it doesn’t seem likely to change the basic dynamics of the health-care debate looking toward 2016.

But this decision will be more significant than I would have expected a decision for the government to be because of the argument offered up by the Chief Justice. Roberts could have tried to limit the effects of this decision by sticking to a set of fundamentally textual arguments about the meaning of the term “established by the state” in the context of the statute as a whole. The decision does offer such arguments, and Justice Roberts does what he can to minimize their incoherence, to contend with the fact that the words in question seem to have a fairly straightforward meaning, and to offer some responses to Justice Scalia’s devastating critique of the majority’s textual reasoning in his dissent.

But the Chief Justice didn’t leave it at that. He makes a much broader argument about the relationship between the vague, broadly stated aims and purposes of legislators and the role of judges interpreting the meaning of the particular laws those legislators then write. Roberts presses this point most firmly at the end of his decision, writing: “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”

In effect, this is a version of the president’s argument: Obamacare is not so much a particular law as an overarching desire “to improve health insurance markets” and so if at all possible it should be taken to mean whatever one believes would be involved in doing so. From the beginning of its implementation of this statute, that Obama administration has treated the words of the statute as far less relevant than the general aim of doing what it thinks would improve health insurance markets, and today the Supreme Court essentially endorsed this way of understanding the law and suggested it is how judges should think about laws more generally too.

This understanding of the role of the judge threatens to undermine the rule of law in the American system of government, because it undermines the central place assigned to written law, and to the legislator, in that system. Ironically, I think the Chief Justice intends his decision to be deferential to the Congress—to keep the Court’s footprint small in this arena by not reading laws in ways that require large transformations in the forms of their administration. But in effect, this is more contempt than deference. While it would seem to suggest that the will of the legislator should guide the system, in fact it means that the word of the legislator does not govern the other branches. It implies that Congress should have just passed a law that said “health insurance markets shall be improved,” and then left it to the executive agencies to decide how they wish to do that while judges nod in approval.

Thus does a commitment to “judicial restraint” and “deference” in practice morph into “activism” and “legislating from the bench.” Instead, justices should be selected because of their demonstrated commitment to enforcing both the Constitution and statutes as they are written, whether this leads to upholding or invalidating a law or regulation.