King v. Burwell updates: Kennedy concerned about consequences
on Mar 4, 2015 at 11:47 am
Until we hear how Justice Kennedy questioned the government, the most important news from the morning’s argument is clearly his focus on the potential consequences for states that choose not to establish their own exchanges under the petitioners’ reading of the statute – that is, that citizens of those states would receive no subsidy and no resulting mandate tax penalty. Trained constitutional lawyers will find it noteworthy that his focus here is on the consequence for states as such, and not for their citizens; Kennedy’s concern is about the federal/state balance and his distrust of a reading that puts a gun to the head of states that fail to set up their own exchanges – threatening them with the almost certain destruction of their statewide insurance systems if they do not comply. That concern might be interpreted (as a matter of legal theory) in a few different ways: 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.
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.