By DAVID RIVKIN and ELIZABETH PRICE FOLEY, March 11, 2015
Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The case centers on a provision of Obamacare that authorizes federal tax subsidies for individuals only if they purchase health insurance through an “Exchange established by the State.” If an individual purchases insurance through a federal-run exchange (in the event that the state opts out of setting up its own exchange), can she still qualify for Obamacare subsidies? The Obama administration says yes; the King plaintiffs say no.
A great deal is at stake here. If the plaintiffs win, individuals in 34 states—the states that have opted not to operate a state insurance exchange—will still be subject to Obamacare’s individual mandate, but they won’t qualify for federal tax subsidies. As a result, their insurance will cost more out-of-pocket. Moreover, because individuals in these 34 states won’t get tax subsidies, employers in these states won’t be subject to the employer mandate, so they won’t have to offer health insurance and can’t be taxed for failing to do so. And yet, those states would be able to continue registering their profound opposition to the entirety of the Obamacare regulatory scheme, thereby undermining its legitimacy. Given these consequences, supporters of Obamacare are pulling out all the stops to prevent a plaintiffs’ victory.
One recent attempt to save tax subsidies in these 34 states has come from an amicus brief filed on behalf of four law professors, two of whom are former clerks to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. During the King oral arguments, it became apparent that their argument had found favor with Ginsburg and three other liberal justices and had gained some traction with the court’s centrist, Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Ironically, the centerpiece of their argument is federalism—the division of powers between state and federal governments—a concept that, while a key part of the Constitution’s separation of powers architecture, is not particularly favored by liberals. Specifically, the law professors’ claim that the court should rule in favor of the Obama administration by invoking the “clear statement rule,” a legal doctrine designed to protect state sovereignty.
However, applying this rule to the King case would be unprecedented and deeply antithetical to federalism. Read more »