That’s how the Wall Street Journal described the second Supreme Court ruling to uphold the Affordable Care Act, as written.
Which is precisely what was at the heart of the case before the justices yet again, what the AFA said. Here’s the later version of the WSJ story, though the news alert that dropped into my inbox said this in opening summary:
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Obama administration can continue to subsidize health-insurance purchases by lower-income Americans across the country, a decision that preserves a centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act.
The ruling marks the second time President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement has survived a near-death experience in the courts, and leaves the law on a firmer footing for the remainder of his time in office.
rescuing for the second time the most ambitious social program in nearly 50 years and ensuring that the law’s ultimate fate will be in the hands of the political process.
Which nearly everything is, these days. In the hands of the political process, that is. Except for those matters in the hands of the judiciary, though that wing has long been bending in the direction of the prevailing political winds.
As usual, there’s a lot of coverage out there, something to fit any viewpoint. Though I’m a legal and policy wonk, my angle is of a purist, how carefully we adhere to the truth and meaning of language of law, policy, and everything else from political promises to social realities, scientific statements to biomedical facts, faith claims to gospel teachings, and all things as they uphold human dignity.
So the key issue for me is how words were so central to this case and final ruling. Leaving aside the specifics of the AFA, otherwise known as Obamacare, I believe everyone deserves health care. How that is best delivered is debatable. Interestingly, two allegedly conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, differed widely (and wildly) in their views of how to handle the Obamacare wording and challenge to it. And the wording of the opinion and dissent.
The WSJ reports:
The 6-3 ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, upheld a signature achievement of President Barack Obama’s tenure. In buttressing the health law’s legal foundation it raised the odds that it may become as entrenched as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The case turned on wording, as the WSJ and any other responsible media reported, no matter how else they reported it. In particular, four words: “established by the State”.
Carrie Severino explains at NRO:
On the Chief’s appeal to context, Scalia points out that context “is a tool for understanding the terms of the law, not an excuse for rewriting them.” But, as Scalia explains, the Chief’s opinion does not merely redefine the words “established by the State,” it effectively deletes them from the statute because the majority’s position is that they add precisely no meaning to the law. Yet Congress used this apparently meaningless phrase over and over. “It is bad enough for a court to cross out ‘by the State’ once. But seven times?”
To which dissenting Justice Scalia went to great lengths by delivering his lively and blistering dissent from the bench, which is unusual.
To mention just the highlights, the Court’s interpretation clashes with a statutory definition, renders words inoperative in at least seven separate provisions of the Act, overlooks the contrast between provisions that say “Exchange” and those that say “Exchange established by the State,” gives the same phrase one meaning for purposes of tax credits but an entirely different meaning for other purposes, and (let us not forget) contradicts the ordinary meaning of the words Congress used. On the other side of the ledger, the Court has come up with nothing more than a general provision that turns out to be controlled by a specific one, a handful of clauses that are consistent with either understanding of establishment by the State, and a resemblance between the tax-credit provision and the rest of the Tax Code. If that is all it takes to make something ambiguous, everything is ambiguous. (emphasis added)
I’m sympathetic with Roberts’s statesmanlike view that the judiciary is not the branch of government equipped, all alone, to save us from Obamacare. So he refuses an opportunity for “judicial activism.” But, from another view, he turns out to be quite the activist, telling Congress what it really meant by its incompetently drafted, screwed-up law. And so if judicial activism is a synonym for judicial legislation, that’s what we have here. Someone might say that Scalia was uncharacteristically the activist for wanting to strike part of the law down. But he claims to be doing the least activist thing by sending the law back to Congress. It should figure out what it really meant and then say that…
All in all, there are some interesting separation-of-powers issues here, as well as the one about the extent to which the Court should scope out the political environment before deciding whether or not to strike a law down.
Yes. Which is precisely the point. It was the point when the Blackmun court wrote abortion into law and cited the Constitution as grounding for it, making that up as it went. It was the point going back to the Dred Scott decision on slavery. Both issues involve classes of human beings denied human rights by the high court.
With this ruling, Justice Scalia said in his dissent, “words no longer have meaning”.
How that atmosphere impacted the decision on how the definition of marriage was deliberated and decided is about to become clear. The task of restoring the meaning of language in communicating human truths is as vital as ever. The merits of Justice Roberts majority opinion may be understandable to many people. But Justice Scalia’s clarifying blast is a valuable call for truth in justice.