Corporate Accountability

Supreme Court upholds ACA, defies partisanship

The Supreme Court ruled this morning in King v. Burwell to uphold crucial ACA federal subsidies.


People often think everyone in Washington is political. With its decision in King v. Burwell this morning, the Supreme Court (or at least some of its members) proved that’s not always true. In a 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, the Court held that Americans nationwide can continue to receive the tax credits that put the “affordable” in Affordable Care Act. As the Court put it, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. . . . [The provision at issue] can fairly be read consistent with what we see as Congress’s plan, and that is the reading we adopt.”


The question the Court tackled in King was whether certain tax credits available under the ACA should be available to everyone, regardless of where they live, or only in states where the state government set up the health exchange. As this issue was being considered in the lower courts, the law’s challengers made clear that they thought they would win if it reached the Supreme Court based on the justices’ partisan preferences. But in today’s important ruling, the Court proved the law’s challengers wrong.


The Court’s decision was clearly the right one. The text, history and purpose of the law all make clear that the tax credits should be available nationwide. The law’s challengers hung their hat on just four words — “established by the State” — in the formula for calculating the amount of the credit. But you can’t look at just four words when interpreting a 900-page law. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote, the Court must read words “in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.” When you do that here, context establishes that an exchange established by the federal government is functionally the same as one established by the state, and tax credits should be available on both. Moreover, as the Chief Justice explained, adopting the interpretation advanced by the law’s challengers would undermine a fundamental purpose of the law. “It is implausible that Congress meant the [law] to operate” in that way, he wrote.


There are a few big winners as a result of the Court’s decision. First is the Obama Administration. Its landmark legislative achievement has been working and will continue to work, providing millions of Americans with health insurance. Moreover, as Roberts, the Chief, explained, political opponents of the ACA should not look to the courts to tear it down. As he put it, it is the responsibility of the Court to “respect the role of the Legislature, and take care not to do undo what it has done.”


Second are those millions of Americans. If this case had come out the other way, the consequences would have been huge — insurance markets in states with federal exchanges would have been in chaos, meaning disaster not just for Americans receiving the tax credits, but for all Americans living in those states.


Third is the Court itself. The decision the Court reached today was the only one consistent with well-established legal principles and the text and history of the ACA. But that didn’t stop three of the Justices from coming out the other way. Roberts has said he doesn’t want the Court to be seen as just an “extension of the political process.” By putting law over politics, the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy helped demonstrate that it won’t be seen as such today. And that’s a very good thing.