President Obama might want to invite Chief Justice John Roberts to the White House for a “thank you” dinner!
The United States Supreme Court today issued an opinion in King v. Burwell that upholds the Obama administration’s interpretation of language in the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”) that concluded government subsidies to underwrite the cost of health care coverage are available to all qualifying Americans–and not just to those living in states that maintain their own heath care exchanges under the ACA. In a 6-3 decision, Chef Justice Roberts authored the opinion of the court (just as he did in the Court’s landmark opinion in 2012 in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius). Specifically, the Court’s opinion upholds a ruling by the Internal Revenue Service that subsidies should be available both in states that have set up their own exchanges and in other states in which residents must purchase coverage through the federal government exchange. Five other justices joined Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion, including Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a typically scathing dissent, and was joined in that dissent by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr.
The case centered on an interpretation of a phrase in the ACA that offers tax credits to individuals who purchase health care coverage on exchanges that are “established by the state.” Chief Justice Roberts wrote that even though the language was problematic, the intent of Congress to provide the subsidies to all individuals was clear. In perhaps the core (and ultimately most-quoted) statement in the opinion, Roberts wrote that “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 his dissent, Justice Scalia forcefully expressed his view that the actions of majority were not designed to interpret the ACA but rather to save it—a job he believes is rightfully reserved to the legislature. Scalia closed his dissent with a statement that is sure to gain much notice and notoriety when he wrote that “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”
This case does not deal with complicated constitutional principles, and at the end of the day simply preserves the status quo. Having said that, most observers believed that a contrary ruling would have dealt a devastating blow to the essential operations of the ACA. While other legal challenges to the ACA are being litigated, none of those cases seem to present such an existential threat to the ACA. Still, the challenges are not over. The ACA surely will be a centerpiece issue during the 2016 presidential campaign, and legislative efforts to repeal, defund or revise all or parts of the ACA will continue. Although the battlefield may have changed, the battles will continue.