The Supreme Court’s decision to hear King v. Burwell means that the Court, for the second time in three years, will be deciding an issue that will have a major impact on the Obama Administration’s ability to implement the Affordable Care Act. The ACA’s requirement that individuals purchase health insurance or else pay a penalty barely survived a constitutional challenge in June 2012 when the Court voted 5-4 in NFIB v. Sebelius to uphold the mandate as a proper exercise of Congress’s power under the Taxing Clause. The claim raised in King—that individuals who purchase insurance on the federal government’s healthcare exchange are not entitled to the tax subsidies available to those purchasing on state exchanges—would, if accepted by the Court, have an impact on the ACA every bit as great as a decision striking down the individual mandate. That fact has caused some commentators to draw spurious parallels between the two cases. Many Obamacare partisans who dismissed the NFIB constitutional challenge as a “shameful” and hypocritical “solicitation of right-wing judicial activism,” are making the same accusation against the King challenge.
The accusations were inaccurate in NFIB; they are hopelessly wrong when applied to King. Before such unfounded criticism of King takes hold, it is important to emphasize major distinctions between the two cases. The petitioners in NFIB were asking the Court to take a decisive step: to strike down legislation adopted by Congress and signed by the President. Those petitioners, in my opinion, raised highly plausible (and indeed, partially successful) arguments in support of their constitutional claims. However, a majority of the justices—mindful of separation-of-powers concerns that arise whenever they are asked to override the will of Congress and the President—followed the Court’s long-held preference that, in the words of Chief Justice Roberts, “every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” Continue reading