Wednesday, March 4, 2015

UPDATED -- Mid Arguments: King v. Burwell Prediction -- ACA Stands; Petitioners Lose

All the conjecture aside -- I do now know this: Either Chief Justice Roberts, or Justice Kennedy, will almost certainly provide the swing vote -- in this case. The Chief Justice asked no questions, so his position is largely occluded. . . opaque.

Justice Kennedy however, has made some clear waves -- trouble, that is, for the petitioners -- and pretty openly suggested that their reading of the "five words" would lead to some absurd results. Ones, we may reliably infer, Congress would not have intended. A little earlier, Justice Kagan laid a trap for the hapless petitioners, and they fell right into it. They are in well over their heads. Both are quoted below, from the very fine

. . . .[Justice Kagan] offered (something like) the following example: Imagine I tell law clerk A to write a memo, and law clerk B to edit law clerk A’s memo, and then I tell law clerk C to write such memo if law clerk A is too busy. And imagine that happens – law clerk A is too busy, so law clerk C writes it. Should law clerk B edit it? The answer seemed obvious: of course, and Justice Kagan all but told petitioner’s counsel (and her clerks) that they would be fired if they didn’t do their job under those circumstances. In response, petitioner’s counsel said that the context mattered, and it would depend on whether the Justice was indifferent between law clerk A and law clerk C writing the memo in the first instance. But that seemed to play into Justice Kagan’s hand, who made clear that this was her point – that in understanding this text, the context obviously mattered.

That turn to context seemed unprofitable initially for petitioners. Many Justices, including Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Kennedy expressed skepticism that the statute would function as intended, in a reasonable fashion, and even constitutionally if petitioners’ reading were accepted. . . .

For those less immersed in the legal niceties, however, I think the key takeaway is that – in a case that seemingly pits literalism against contextualism – Justice Kennedy was very attentive to the consequences of the reading that petitioners urged. He seemed to realize that state legislators would be in an impossible position under that reading – more or less forced to “adopt” or “endorse” the ACA system in order to avoid unmanageable consequences in their states. His plausible conclusion was that Congress either did not intend to put them to that choice, or that the statute shouldn’t be read to have done so, because that’s not typically how our constitutional system works. Instead, the federal government makes and administers federal laws without forcing the states to do some of the work for them. Kennedy seemed to be thinking that this provision should be read more like the typical case, and rather unlike the kind of unusual provision the petitioners suggested. . . .

Justice Kennedy might believe that Congress would not have intended to set up such a dubious system; he might believe that this reading is required but actually unconstitutional (so that he would strike down the statute’s condition that subsidies apply only to exchanges established by the state); or – perhaps most likely – he might believe that the statute should be interpreted so as to avoid the “serious constitutional problem” he identified. . . .

So -- we shall see. Onward -- and "Forward". Background here.

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