Be Very Afraid Of ‘King v. Burwell’

Be Very Afraid Of ‘King v. Burwell’

There was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves.

–Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1726

The real question before the Supreme Court in the ballyhooed case of King v. Burwell isn’t merely the continuance of the mandated health insurance subsidies of “Obamacare.” It’s whether or not the United States has essentially become a banana republic — an oligarchy whose legal institutions exist to provide ceremonial cover for backroom political power plays.

Almost regardless of what you think of the Affordable Care Act, legalistic chicanery of the kind on display shouldn’t be rewarded. That King v. Burwell has reached the high court is bad enough. Should the Roberts Court hand down a 5-4 decision based upon a tendentious misreading of the statute, several things will happen: An estimated 8.2 million Americans will lose health insurance coverage, the U.S. health care system will be thrown into economic chaos, and a few thousand citizens will no doubt die.

To a certain kind of person styling himself “conservative,” this would be perfectly all right.  In an op-ed titled “End Obamacare, and People Could Die. That’s Okay,” one Michael R. Strain argues that higher death rates are “an acceptable price to pay for certain goals,” including “less government coercion and more individual liberty.”

Acceptable to Strain and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, that is, a plutocrat-funded Washington think tank whose resident “scholars” are handsomely paid to mimic the values of 19th-century Russian aristocrats.

Along with the human casualties, the U.S. Supreme Court’s prestige as a fair arbiter would also be irrevocably damaged. As New York Times legal correspondent Linda Greenhouse argues, “The Court has permitted itself to be recruited into the front lines of a partisan war. Not only the Affordable Care Act but the Court itself is in peril as a result.”

And that would damage what’s left of American democracy.

During his 2005 confirmation hearings, Chief Justice Roberts likened himself to an umpire. His job would be to call balls and strikes, not to reinvent the rules of baseball. It was a very shrewd formulation, as most Americans prefer a non-partisan judiciary. “It is a very serious threat to the independence and integrity of the courts to politicize them,” Roberts has said repeatedly.

With the signal exception of Citizens United, a 5-4 decision invalidating campaign finance laws and pushing the nation in the direction of plutocracy, some observers do credit the Chief Justice with making an effort to move the Court away from overt partisanship. Almost two-thirds of recent Supreme Court rulings have been unanimous.

However, Roberts’ deciding vote legitimizing Obamacare’s insurance mandate infuriated many Republicans. They see in King v. Burwell an opportunity for the Chief Justice to redeem himself. All he needs to do is persuade a majority of the Justices, presumably including himself, that because the Affordable Care Act speaks of subsidies being available through a health insurance “exchange established by a state,” it means only, exactly, and literally that.

If your state—say, New York—set up and ran its own marketplace, then you’re eligible for Obamacare.

If not, you’re not.

No more health insurance subsidies for residents of Texas, Oklahoma and 32 other states that let the feds set up exchanges for them.

Never mind that the law specifically requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to “establish and operate such exchange[s] within the states.” Never mind that nobody anywhere understood the Affordable Care Act to have such a restrictive meaning when it was being debated, enacted and put into operation. Such an interpretation certainly never came up during the difficult period when the website labored to get up to speed.

Never mind too that time-worn Supreme Court precedents direct judges interpreting laws to consider not isolated snippets of language, but “the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole.” (The wording is from a 1997 opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.)

For that matter, if anybody in Congress on either side thought the law meant what the plaintiff’s lawyers in King v. Burwell claim, why have we been having the political battle of the century about it? Why vote 56 times to repeal a law that only applies in 16 of the 50 states?

It’s an odd form of legalistic fundamentalism the justices must consider, the constitutional equivalent of a guy trying to beat a ticket for driving 95 mph in a school zone because a typo reads “ozone.”

The wonder is that the Court elected to hear the case at all after a three-judge appeals court in Richmond rejected it unanimously.

And the scary question is why?

Photo: Wally Gobetz via Flickr

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