Bench Memos

NRO’s home for judicial news and analysis.

A Thought Experiment: RFRA and Lethal Injection


I’m curious how newly minted opponents of RFRA would respond to a hypo regarding RFRA and lethal injection.

The pre-execution drama in Arizona this week revolved around identifying the manufacturer of the lethal-injection drugs and getting information about how those relatively new drugs were chosen. 

Many companies have decided not to manufacture drugs for executions, both for moral and public relations reasons after being targeted by death penalty opponents. This refusal has the perverse effect of increasing the likelihood that executions will go awry because states then turn to new drugs with less of a track record.

Imagine that Arizona, concerned about its compelling interest in ensuring that its executions are carried out in the most humane manner possible, passes a law requiring pharmaceutical companies to provide those drugs to the state. Could a pharmaceutical company owned by religious opponents of the death penalty raise a RFRA defense? 

It strikes me that the same objections raised against Hobby Lobby’s RFRA claim apply here. The pharmaceutical company is for-profit and a corporation, there is an intermediate actor who is the one actually using the drug itself, and there are third parties (the condemned prisoners) who are affected. But the defense ought to be just as valid as it was for Hobby Lobby.

Note that the existence of the defense doesn’t mean it would succeed. A state interest in humane executions for example seems to me much more compelling than the interest in forcing a third party to pay for contraceptives. But it’s a good litmus test for people on both sides to make sure their discussion of this issue is about principles, not politics.

Some Irony


Law professor Rick Hasen perceives some “great irony” in “those who up until yesterday supported the DC Circuit’s strict textualist reading of the ACA now pointing to a statement made by a supporter of the law involved in its drafting as evidence of the statute’s meaning.” (My emphasis.) He links to my post from this morning.

There is no irony at all. I have not cited Gruber’s statement “as evidence of the statute’s meaning.” My post does little more than quote from Gruber’s statement and link to Michael Cannon’s long post, where Cannon writes (emphasis added0:

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of this revelation. Gruber acknowledging this feature of the law is not direct evidence of congressional intent. But Gruber is probably the most influential private citizen/government contractor involved in that legislative process. He was in the room with the people who crafted this bill. There may be videos of them talking about this feature too. (I wouldn’t know; I only researched congressional statements made pre-enactment.) At a minimum, however, with the D.C. Circuit and the Fourth Circuit and now Jonathan Gruber lining up against the idea that it is implausible that Congress could have meant what it said, we can dispense with that argument once and for all.

The D.C. Circuit majority concluded (1) that “established by the State” means established by the State, (2) that this meaning does not render Obamacare absurd, and (3) that the legislative history provides little indication, one way or the other, of congressional intent. Cannon properly uses Gruber’s statement in support of the second point.

More generally, it’s a routine part of debate to refute the other side’s case by arguing in the alternative: e.g., your point is irrelevant, but even if it were relevant, it’s factually wrong. Someone, for example, who believes that legislative history shouldn’t be consulted as evidence of the meaning of a statutory provision isn’t engaging in a “great irony” when he points out that the other side gets the legislative history wrong.

For what it’s worth—not that it matters here—as a general matter I of course can’t fairly be thought to embrace every part of a post that I approvingly cite.


Why Legislation Trumps Talking Points


In attempting to defend the IRS rule at issue in Halbig and King, the White House has appealed to the following proposition, allegedly so obvious you don’t need a “fancy legal degree” to understand it: “Congress intended for every eligible American to have access to tax credits that would lower their health care costs, regardless of whether it was state officials or federal officials who are running the marketplace.”

But is the question of intent really that simple? Is it just a matter of “common sense” about what means is best to achieve the self-evident goals of a statute? 

On one level, determining congressional intent is simple, or at least should be. Here is a handy rule used regularly by “fancy” judges and lawyers: If you want to know what Congress’s intent was, look at the law they passed.

I’m being facetious, but that really is the first principle of statutory interpretation. You start with the text. 

And for good reason. Our Constitution establishes a representative democracy, in which, as Judge Griffith put it, “policy is made by elected, politically accountable representatives, not by appointed, life-tenured judges.” 

The way those representatives make policy is not by making floor speeches, discussing the high-minded goals of legislation in press conferences, or making titles that promise great things like “affordable health care.” The way our representatives make policy is by passing laws. So the only legitimate way for our courts to give effect to that policy, rather than substituting their own policy views, is to give effect to the laws as written and passed by Congress

There are a lot of good reasons to stick with the text. One is that its objectivity — anyone can read and understand it – takes much of the guesswork out of planning your life or your business. 

A major reason America has become a successful nation is because we are a nation of laws. If you want to do business here you can be (relatively) confident that the rules of the game are out there and knowable — even if they are often complicated enough to require “fancy lawyers” to understand. Everyone from Mom and Pop to the multi-billion-dollar business prefers to operate in an environment where they can trust that the rules aren’t constantly changing with the whim of those in office. They may not like the rules, but they can plan their actions around them.

The inner thoughts and feelings of each of the 279 legislators who voted for the ACA, on the other hand, are not generally knowable. Many of those legislators may not have actually considered the implications of (or heck, even read) the provisions at issue. Should the law of the land depend on whether Nancy Pelosi did or did not read the bill before she helped pass it? I would hope not, or the ACA is likely not the only American law cast into serious doubt. 

The average American going about his or her daily life can be a lot more confident about decisionmaking if we don’t have to psychoanalyze the entire U.S. Congress in order to know what the laws mean.

Another important reason to stick with the text is that it limits the flexibility of unelected judges to import their own preferred meaning into laws. Trying to make sense of the effluvia from Capitol Hill is a hard enough job as it is if you simply stick with the text. 

Surely even the most conscientious judge may at times allow his or her policy views to unconsciously color the reading of a statute. But giving judges free rein to supplement the text with their view of legislators’ likely thoughts or their (easily cherry-picked) take on the general trend of the floor statements opens the door to importing those views implicitly.  And endorsing a view of statutory interpretation that allows a judge to interpret a law to achieve his “common sense” instinct about what the law ought to have said invites them to make their own policy views of first importance. This is what most of the allegations of “absurdity” in the Halbig and King context boil down to: it just seems wrong that the law would say what it says. Why would anyone vote for such a disastrous policy?

Yet deciding how to best achieve policy goals is the job of the legislator, not the judge. And common sense is decidedly slippery — it is rare that someone on either side of a heated debate does not believe he is backed up by simple common sense. Even more so when we are applying it after the fact — knowing in this case that 36 states would not set up exchanges, something that probably seemed unthinkable at the time.

Finally, it makes sense to stick with the text to ensure that Congress takes its own role seriously. Leaving the laws vague and letting the courts or regulators make the hard choices is tempting for someone who has to run for office regularly and doesn’t want to make enemies.  Why not just demand “affordable care” and let someone else take the hit for how it ultimately plays out? 

If legislators think that the regulatory agencies or judges will be able to clean up their messes, they have no incentive to do the job we elected them for. They are the ones who are supposed to be studying the policies they are voting on and making sure they will work correctly before blithely inserting them into the US Code and requiring the rest of us to live by them. A bit more circumspection ex ante would be a healthy development in our legislative process.

I’ve said sticking to the text should be simple. Congress has in this case enacted some serious sausage with the ACA so it’s no surprise that there are internally inconsistent and confusing provisions hidden in its 900 pages. But that’s no reason to give unelected regulators and judges the enormous power of rewriting that behemoth.  We need to take Congress at its word and give it the opportunity to fix the laws itself.  As the Constitution intended.

Re: “Marginally” Dishonest?


A follow-up to my post yesterday: In its ruling last week in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Fifth Circuit panel majority acknowledges (if rather backhandedly) that the University of Texas’s use of race in its so-called “holistic review” process was far from marginal:

Given the test score gaps between minority and non-minority applicants, if holistic review was not designed to evaluate each individual’s contributions to UT Austin’s diversity, including those that stem from race, holistic admissions would approach an all-white enterprise. Data for the entering Texan class of 2005, the first year of the Grutter plan, show that Hispanic students admitted through holistic review attained an average SAT score of 1193, African-American students an 1118, and white students a 1295. For the entering class of 2007, the last class before Fisher applied for admission, the corresponding data were 1155 for Hispanic students, 1073 for African American students, and 1275 for white students, this from a universe of underperforming secondary schools. [Emphasis added.]

The first sentence of the passage above strikes me as obfuscation. Given that the plaintiff wasn’t trying to exclude from the holistic-review process anything other than consideration of race and ethnicity, I gather that what the majority really means is:

Given the test score gaps between minority and non-minority applicants, if holistic review was not designed to evaluate each individual’s racial or ethnic contribution to UT Austin’s diversity, holistic admissions would approach an all-white enterprise.

(I’m unclear whether the majority is including Asian-Americans in the “all-white” category or whether their numbers explain why race-free holistic admissions would only “approach an all-white enterprise.”)

Relatedly, a reader writes:

On “marginally”: It is interesting to me that proponents of affirmative action (1) routinely try to sell it to the public on the “it is just a feather on the scale” model, the theory being that it only ever operates as a tie-breaker between two otherwise “clearly qualified” candidates, and (2) at the same time are quick to decry and lament the steep drops in minority enrollment that public universities have experienced when forced to comply with bans on the practice.  

Not Just O’Care Architect: The IRS Knew It Broke the Law


As Ed Whelan points out below, Jonathan Gruber gave the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act exactly the same reading, where “exchange established by the State” is concerned, that Judge Griffith of the D.C. Circuit gave it in the Halbig case.  (I see from some Twitter traffic that Gruber is furiously backpedaling from a view that was plainspoken and uncontroversial at the time he offered it, but is now devilishly inconvenient.)

As Kimberly Strassel explains in her Wall Street Journal “Potomac Watch” column today, the IRS itself seems to have taken exactly the same view of the law’s meaning as the one in the Halbig ruling, until–the evidence strongly suggests–the agency was pressed into writing its regulatory thumb-in-the-dike for the hole opened up by 36 states’ refusal to establish exchanges.  

We know that in the late summer of 2010, after ObamaCare was signed into law, the IRS assembled a working group—made up of career IRS and Treasury employees—to develop regulations around ObamaCare subsidies. And we know that this working group initially decided to follow the text of the law. An early draft of its rule about subsidies explained that they were for “Exchanges established by the State.”

Yet in March 2011, Emily McMahon, the acting assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury Department (a political hire), saw a news article that noted a growing legal focus on the meaning of that text. She forwarded it to the working group, which in turn decided to elevate the issue—according to Congress’s report—to “senior IRS and Treasury officials.” The office of the IRS chief counsel—one of two positions appointed by the president—drafted a memo telling the group that it should read the text to mean that everyone, in every exchange, got subsidies. At some point between March 10 and March 15, 2011, the reference to “Exchanges established by the State” disappeared from the draft rule.

Emails viewed by congressional investigators nonetheless showed that Treasury and the IRS remained worried they were breaking the law. An email exchange between Treasury employees in the spring of 2011 expressed concern that they had no statutory authority to deem a federally run exchange the equivalent of a state-run exchange.

Yet rather than engage in a basic legal analysis—a core duty of an agency charged with tax laws—the IRS instead set about obtaining cover for its predetermined political goal. A March 27, 2011, email has IRS employees asking HHS political hires to cover the tax agency’s backside by issuing its own rule deeming HHS-run exchanges to be state-run exchanges. HHS did so in July 2011. One month later the IRS rushed out its own rule—providing subsidies for all.

Strassel’s source is an investigative report published by the House Government Oversight and Ways and Means committees.  If ever there were a committee report of which the Supreme Court could properly take judicial notice in a case–not to construe the meaning of the law, which is plain enough, but as evidence of agency chicanery–this is it.



Obamacare Architect Embraced Anti-Subsidy Reading


If this doesn’t quiet down the crazies on the Left, nothing will.

It turns out that leading Obamacare architect (and MIT economist) Jonathan Gruber embraced the exact reading of the exchange-subsidy provisions that the plaintiffs challenging the Obama administration’s application of those provisions have advanced. Specifically, in a January 2012 presentation, Gruber explained:

[S]o these health-insurance Exchanges … will be these new shopping places and they’ll be the place that people go to get their subsidies for health insurance. In the law, it says if the states don’t provide them, the federal backstop will. The federal government has been sort of slow in putting out its backstop, I think partly because they want to sort of squeeze the states to do it. I think what’s important to remember politically about this, is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an Exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits. But your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying to your citizens, you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country. I hope that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these Exchanges, and that they’ll do it

Cato’s Michael Cannon, who (with Jonathan Adler) has spearheaded the challenges, has much more here (including a video of Gruber’s remarks).

Update: As Gruber tries to run away from his comments, John Sexton and Peter Suderman highlight similar comments by Gruber on another occasion.

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 25


1990—Less than three months after appointing New Hampshire supreme court justice David Hackett Souter to the First Circuit, President George H.W. Bush nominates him to the Supreme Court vacancy resulting from Justice Brennan’s retirement.

Displaying his usual perspicacity and deploying his full arsenal of clichés, Teddy Kennedy, one of nine Democrats to vote against Souter’s confirmation, will rail against Souter: Souter had not demonstrated “a sufficient commitment to the core constitutional values at the heart of our democracy.” His record “raised troubling questions about the depth of his commitment to the role of the Supreme Court and Congress in protecting individual rights and liberties under the Constitution.” His record on civil rights was “particularly troubling” and “reactionary.” On voting rights, he “was willing to defend the indefensible.” He was not “genuinely concerned about the rights of women” and had “alarming” views on Roe v. Wade. He would “turn back the clock on the historic progress of recent decades.”

Alas, as a justice, Souter was far more left-wing on hot-button issues than even Kennedy could have hoped. Contrary to media depictions of him as a “moderate,” Souter read into the Constitution the Left’s agenda on a broad range of issues: for example, abortion (including partial-birth abortion), homosexual conduct (including a virtual declaration of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage), imposition of secularism as the national creed, and reliance on foreign law to determine the meaning of the Constitution.

Greenhouse Gas


The New York Times’s Linda Greenhouse predictably praises the recent court of appeals decision upholding the University of Texas’s use of racial and ethnic preferences in admissions. But as I noted on the Times’s website: 

The court’s analytical framework is obviously wrong: The purported educational benefits of adding racial preferences to the Top Ten Percent Plan were not demonstrated, and there was no discussion at all of the costs of such discrimination. The alleged benefits are dubious and trivial, while the costs are many, heavy, and undeniable. To give just one example of the latter: Despite all the attention lately that has been given to the well-documented problem of mismatching students and schools — setting the “beneficiaries” of racial preferences up for failure — there is not a word about it in the court’s opinion.

I also cannot let pass Ms. Greenhouse’s casual and false reference in her piece to “the world of higher education, where race is commonly — even if marginally — a factor in the overall admissions picture.” Commonly, yes — but not marginally. This is, as Ed Whelan notes, a risible claim. As studies from conservative, centrist, and liberal scholars have all confirmed, race is weighed very heavily indeed in university admissions. 

“Marginally” Dishonest?


In a ruling last week, a divided panel of the Fifth Circuit rejected a constitutional challenge to the University of Texas’s use of racial classifications in its admissions process. Writing online for the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse extensively praises the majority opinion. I haven’t yet had time to read the ruling, so I have no comments on it or on Greenhouse’s praise. But I was struck by this assertion of hers:

[T]he [Supreme Court’s] decision last June [in Fisher v. University of Texas] alarmed the world of higher education, where race is commonly — even if marginally — a factor in the overall admissions picture.

“Marginally”?!? As UCLA law professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. discussed in their amicus brief in Fisher, the racial preferences that UT and other universities use for African-Americans and Hispanics “are very large indeed”:

For example, among freshmen entering the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 who were admitted outside the top-ten-percent system, the mean SAT score (on a scale of 2400) of Asians was a staggering 467 points and the mean score of whites was 390 points above the mean black score. In percentile terms, these Asians scored at the 93rd percentile of 2009 SAT takers nationwide, whites at the 89th percentile, Hispanics at the 80th percentile, and blacks at the 52nd percentile. [Emphasis added.]

I suppose that Walter Duranty, another longtime reporter at the New York Times, might likewise have said that the food shortages in the Soviet Union in the 1930s were “commonly—even if marginally—a factor” in the lives of Ukrainians.

Unhinged Statutory Interpretation among the Netroots


After the D.C. Circuit released its opinion in Halbig v. Burwell striking down the IRS rule that grants tax subsidies to exchange plans purchased in states without state-run exchanges, the liberal blogosphere lit up with outrage. The New Republic’s Brian Beutler accused Judge Griffith’s majority opinion of taking the phrase “established by the State” out of context, accusing him of ignoring the whole-act canon that, Beutler contends, makes the statute’s meaning unambiguous in favor of the government.

But here’s how he explains this principle:

Insurance subsidies are valid in every state, regardless of which entity set up a particular state’s exchange. Sloppiness aside, there’s no ambiguity about the law’s “overall statutory scheme.” Other parts of the law make clear that its drafters contemplated subsidies in every state. This lower court judge agrees

This isn’t even an argument, much less statutory interpretation. It assumes the conclusion and makes an appeal to (now overruled) authority. Maybe he’ll elaborate later:

What the challengers have asked judges to do is to ignore the “fundamental canon” and buy into the idea that the Democrats who passed the law unambiguously structured it to withhold premium subsidies from states that refused to set up their own exchanges, as some sort of high-stakes inducement. This is plainly false. It’s the giant whopper underlying the entire theory of Halbig. A completely fabricated history of the Affordable Care Act, which treats the scores of reporters who covered the drafting of the law as idiots, and the aides and members who actually drafted it as bigger idiots and liars as well.

Hmm, nothing here either. Had Beutler read the majority opinion more carefully, he would have seen the part where Judge Griffith concludes that the legislative history doesn’t really help either side and rests his conclusion on basic statutory interpretation.

In a later piece, Beutler raises what he clearly thinks is a “gotcha” mistake in the majority opinion. In rebutting the dissent’s argument that Congress could not have intended to create a system that would have an adverse selection problem in practice, Judge Griffith points out that the ACA explicitly created a system that had adverse selection problems in the territories. Here’s what Beutler thinks is the mistake:

[But] “In letters sent July 16, the Obama administration notified territorial regulators that their residents would be largely exempted from health law requirements…perhaps most importantly the requirement that insurers offer coverage to all shoppers.”

In other words, contrary to opinion of the court, the administration believes that absent subsides (and thus absent a broadly applicable mandate) the coverage guarantee has to go as well, leaving the law’s explicit coverage goals well out of reach.

I imagine Griffith and his clerks finalized the opinion before the administration updated its position, and weren’t aware that a recent policy change had undercut his argument. 

Somehow, some way, Beutler thinks a “policy change” would “undercut” Griffith’s interpretation of the words in the statute. He appears to be unable to distinguish between law and policy.

Slate’s Emily Bazelon makes an analogous equivalency, calling it an error that Judge Griffith wasn’t “interested” in the fact that Scott Brown’s election in 2010 meant that the Democrats in Congress couldn’t pass the bill they wanted to pass. That’s certainly interesting political history, and is absolutely relevant to understanding the legislative history of the ACA. But Bazelon doesn’t explain how this ought to affect the interpretation of the statutory text. Courts are bound by legislation, not political history. After all, Congress chose to forge ahead with the ACA anyway, warts and all. Bazelon never explains why the compromised policy outcome should change the result.

She also blithely concludes that the 7–4 Democrat-Republican en banc D.C. Circuit will reverse the panel: “Presto: Harry Edwards’ dissent today can be a winner tomorrow.” As I mentioned before, I don’t think an en banc reversal is inevitable, even with the new Obama appointees. Bazelon seems to think party affiliation is nothing more than a proxy for legal analysis. It might turn out that way, of course, but the Supreme Court’s record of rejecting Administration positions this year suggests otherwise.

False Dichotomy


On Slate, law professor Richard Hasen perceives in the D.C. Circuit and Fourth Circuit rulings on Obamacare exchange subsidies “a more fundamental question: Is it the courts’ job to make laws work for the people, or to treat laws as arid linguistic puzzles?” I’d vote for a third option—it’s the courts’ job to say what the law means.

In his broadside against textualism, Hasen complains that “Rigid textualism can lead to harsh results.” It surely can—when the enacted text provides for such results. That’s properly a complaint against legislatures, not against textualism.

Hasen would instead have courts function as a roving superlegislature, with “an obligation to make laws work.” That unconstrained conception of the judicial role presupposes that courts are able to look beyond the text to (in Hasen’s phrase) “figure out what Congress intended.” After all, the purported goal is to “make laws work” to achieve “what Congress intended.” But the very notion of some extratextual collective congressional “intent” is a fiction. Ironically, leftist scholars (soundly) criticized the original-intent species of originalism* on this very ground, but they resort to the same flawed ground in defending freewheeling statutory construction (or perhaps I should say statutory revisionism).

With respect to the D.C. Circuit ruling, I’ll note that determining that “established by the State” means established by the State does not strike me as an “arid linguistic puzzle.” Hasen also gives the false impression that the panel did not consult legislative history. In fact, the panel spends more than ten pages (slip op. at 30-41) discussing the legislative history and concludes that “the legislative record provides little indication one way or the other of congressional intent.”

* By contrast, original-meaning originalism (which I explain here) is immune from this criticism.

Update: Hasen has provided a response of sorts, though I don’t think it addresses what I actually wrote.

Frenzy on the Left


In its ruling on Tuesday in Halbig v Burwell, the D.C. Circuit ruled (in a 2-1 panel decision) that the provision of Obamacare that authorizes tax credits for insurance purchased on an exchange “established by the State under section 1311” doesn’t authorize tax credits for insurance purchased on an exchange established by the federal government. In their same-day posts, Carrie Severino and Jonathan Keim aptly presented the D.C. Circuit’s analysis.

There is a frenzy on the Left over the decision. As usual, E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a good example.

In his Washington Post column today, Dionne condemns the panel’s “convoluted reading of the law” as an act of “extreme judicial activism.” Keeping his readers in the dark, he fails to quote the actual language that the court was construing and instead obliquely states that the subsidies “are established in a part of the law referring to state exchanges.”

I don’t doubt that there is room for intelligent disagreement with the panel decision, but there is nothing “convoluted” about reading “established by the State” to mean established by the State, nor does such a straightforward reading remotely qualify as “extreme judicial activism.”

In two “Never mind that …” sentences, Dionne gives the false impression that the panel failed to address the concerns that he raises (but see slip op. at 23-30, 32-34). He also claims that the panel “invents the idea that Congress may have intended to deny subsidies to people in states that didn’t set up their own exchanges as an incentive for those states to do so.” But the panel actually states that “the most that can be said of [that] theory”—which the challengers advanced; the panel did not “invent” it—“is that it is plausible.” (Slip op. at note 11.) The panel makes clear that its ruling does not embrace, and does not rest on, that possibility.

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 24


2013—Senate Democrats expedite a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s controversial D.C. Circuit nominee, left-wing Georgetown law professor Cornelia Pillard, whom one former colleague describes as “Reinhardt in a skirt, but less moderate.” (The reference is to Ninth Circuit judge Stephen Reinhardt, who has a strong claim to being the most aggressive leftist ever to sit on a federal court of appeals.)

At her hearing, Pillard delivers false and deceptive testimony about her own writings (and, despite her usual hostility to sex stereotypes, happily offers one of her own to hide behind).

Some months later, Senate Democrats will abolish the supermajority cloture rule for judicial nominees in order to confirm Pillard and two other D.C. Circuit nominees and thus render the D.C. Circuit a rubber stamp for President Obama’s ideological agenda.

Judge Kozinski on Death by Lethal Injection


Ninth Circuit chief judge Alex Kozinski, in dissent from the denial of rehearing en banc in Wood v. Ryan, opined that Arizona “should and will prevail” in its effort to carry out the death sentence. At the same time, he offered some noteworthy comments on why, in his judgment, execution by lethal injection is “an enterprise doomed to failure”:

Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments.… But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.

After proposing firing squads as the “most promising” means of execution, Kozinski observed:

Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.

I think that Kozinski’s observations deserve serious attention.

A Very Busy Week


Things sure weren’t quiet on the legal front while I was on vacation, and I’ll strive to catch up as quickly as I can.

One indication of how fast-moving things were: On Saturday, in Wood v. Ryan, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit preliminarily enjoined the state of Arizona from proceeding with the execution of an inmate who contended that the state’s failure to provide him specific information (e.g., lot numbers) about the drugs to be used in his execution violated his First Amendment rights. (Majority opinion by Judge Sidney Thomas; dissent by Judge Jay Bybee.) On Monday, over the dissent of eleven judges (including recent Obama appointee John Owens), the Ninth Circuit denied rehearing en banc. Then yesterday evening, the Supreme Court, without recorded dissent, vacated the Ninth Circuit panel ruling. The execution of the inmate, Joseph Wood, is scheduled to take place some time today.

By contrast: The murders that provided the basis for Wood’s death sentence—murders of his estranged girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father Eugene Dietz—occurred in 1989, and Wood’s conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal twenty years ago.

A Major Defeat for the IRS and Victory for Common Sense in Halbig v. Burwell


Today was, ironically, a victory for Obamacare but a defeat for President Obama, as the D.C. Circuit upheld the text of the law over IRS attempts to rewrite it through regulation. The court came to the unremarkable but nonetheless controversial conclusion that, as Judge Randolph’s concurrence put it, “an Exchange established by the federal government cannot possibly be ‘an Exchange established by the State.’” This commonsense holding is another major defeat for the administration in its attempts to shore up the president’s namesake legislation through the clever use of pens, phones, and politicized regulators.

As Jonathan Keim and I have described (see our amicus briefthree-part seriesoral-argument discussion, and post-argument commentary), this case addresses attempts by the IRS to expand the scope of Obamacare’s premium subsidies. The law only provides those credits for plans purchased on exchanges “established by a State under section 1311” of the Affordable Care Act. As it turns out, just 14 states (and the District of Columbia) established their own exchanges, leaving the federal government to establish exchanges for the remaining 36 states. 

Dismayed that the resulting unavailability of subsidies would undermine their efforts to convince people to buy insurance on the exchanges, the IRS issued a regulation rewriting the section to authorize subsidies for exchanges established by the federal government, instead of just those “established by the State.” By offering these illegal subsidies, they induced an estimated 4 to 5 million people to buy insurance that otherwise would have been overly expensive.

But the subsidies don’t come for free. Not only do they cost taxpayers money, they also trigger the individual and employer mandates for more than 60 million people in the states that did not set up exchanges. The IRS regulation meant all of the people in those states would be forced to either buy insurance they didn’t want or face hefty fines. Several individuals and employers subject to those mandates brought suit in the D.C. Circuit and won in today’s decision.

The three-judge panel split 2–1. Judge Griffith wrote the majority decision for himself and Senior Judge Randolph, finding the regulation to be contrary to the text of the ACA. Randolph also filed a brief concurrence emphasizing that the precedent controlled their decision at both the D.C. Circuit and Supreme Court levels and labeling the IRS regulation “distortion, not interpretation.” Senior Judge Edwards filed a dissent that found the IRS rule was a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous provision.

Griffith’s majority is detailed, workmanlike, and clear — probably written with an eye to the likely motion for rehearing en banc. After all, this case is precisely the type of challenge the president had in mind during his aggressive push last year to pack the D.C. Circuit with his own nominees. Now the active judges include a lopsided seven Democratic nominees and four Republican nominees. And although the D.C. Circuit traditionally has declined to take many cases en banc as a matter of collegial respect, the Obama administration’s politicization of the court may have changed that.

The plaintiffs argued — and the court ultimately agreed — that “a federal Exchange is not an ‘Exchange established by the State,’” and thus that the statute passed by Congress already unambiguously determined which exchanges were covered by subsidies. 

The court also actually agreed with the government on a significant point. It held that, although the federally operated exchanges were authorized under section 1321, they could be said to be established under section 1311 because that section describes the state exchanges they were replacing. But that didn’t get the government quite far enough. As the court analyzed the phrase, it has three functional parts: “(1) an Exchange (2) established by the State (3) under section 1311″ and “federal Exchanges satisfy only two: they are Exchanges established under section 1311. Nothing in section 1321 deems federally-established Exchanges to be”“Exchange[s] established by the State.’” Pretty straightforward stuff.

The court also noted that elsewhere in the ACA, several non-state entities were explicitly included in this definition. For example, territories (which have since been exempted from the law by ad-hoc executive determination) if they “elect[] . . . to establish an Exchange . . . shall be treated as a State.” 42 U.S.C. § 18043(a)(1). The fact that Congress included some non-state exchanges in this section strongly indicates that leaving others out was intentional.

But even in the face of such clear statutory language, the government had sought refuge in the absurdity doctrine, which says that the court will try to avoid truly absurd results even if the statute’s plain language seems to demand them. But the court found that each absurdity proposed by the government wasn’t actually odd enough to meet the “high threshold” for allowing the court to second-guess the words of Congress. It also noted that nothing in the statutory history supported the government’s position that “Congress meant something other than what it literally said.”

Ultimately, the dissent latched onto the government’s final attempt to shore up its interpretation by claiming that without subsidies, the entire ACA system would collapse under its own weight. But, as the Supreme Court held just this term, “an agency may not rewrite clear statutory terms to suit its own sense of how the statute should operate.”

This decision, when it goes into effect, will have broad ramifications for the millions of individuals who were promised subsidies that were not authorized by the ACA. It will simultaneously free tens of millions more from Obamacare’s onerous government mandates. But its biggest impact — achieved by simply enforcing the laws passed by Congress — will be the reinforcement of the basic democratic structure of our society.

Judge Griffith put it better than I could:

Within constitutional limits, Congress is supreme in matters of policy, and the consequence of that supremacy is that our duty when interpreting a statute is to ascertain the meaning of the words of the statute duly enacted through the formal legislative process. This limited role serves democratic interests by ensuring that policy is made by elected, politically accountable representatives, not by appointed, life-tenured judges.

Well said.

Halbig v. Burwell: Plain Language Trumps ‘Purpose’ and ‘Intent’


The D.C. Circuit’s carefully reasoned decision striking down the IRS’s unlawful tax subsidies in Halbig v. Burwell undermines the administration’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As I noted before, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held 2–1 that the IRS had exceeded its authority in issuing a tax regulation that mandated tax subsidies through federal Obamacare exchanges that were not “established by the State.” Judge Griffith wrote the majority opinion, joined by Judge Randolph (who also wrote a separate concurring opinion). Carter appointee Judge Harry Edwards dissented.  (The Fourth Circuit issued a contrary opinion today, too. More on that later.). 

This case was all about text: What role does the actual language of a statute play when Congress has passed it as part of a complex legislative scheme that, quite frankly, includes bad policy decisions? How much latitude does the government have to re-interpret statutory text in trying to change the policy? And where do courts draw the line between interpretation and distortion? This post will examine how Judge Griffith and Judge Edwards answer those questions.

Judge Griffith took what one might call a “textualist” approach, reasoning from the text and its meaning and rebutting the alternative interpretations. Judge Randolph’s concurring opinion agreed and made the sharper point that an exchange established by the federal government cannot possibly be an exchange established by the state, and that “to hold otherwise would be to engage in distortion, not interpretation.” Judge Edwards, as predicted, took the broadest interpretation of the ACA, relying on a broad understanding of the ACA’s purpose and policy, which he then used to trigger Chevron deference. (Somewhat oddly, Judge Edwards directs most of his fire at the appellants, not the majority opinion.)

Judge Griffith’s majority opinion recognized the relationship between the Constitution and the court’s duty to focus on the statutory text, noting that the Constitution “assigns the legislative power to Congress, and Congress alone, see U.S. Const. art. I, § 1, and legislating often entails compromises that courts must respect.” The only legal instrument that triggers the executive’s responsibility to execute it — a bill that passes both houses of Congress and is signed or acceded to by the president — is the statutory text. Because legally binding compromises can result in the passage of statutory text, the statutory text is the proper focal point for the courts.

Nevertheless, Judge Griffith pointed out what he called a “fork” in the D.C. Circuit’s precedent regarding legislative history. One of those forks includes the traditional rule that if the statutory text is unambiguous, there is no need to resort to legislative history. The other fork, from a case called Sierra Club v. EPA (D.C. Cir. 2008), commended legislative history “to shed new light on congressional intent, notwithstanding statutory language that appears superficially clear.” (As a side note, a quick review of the precedent cited for Sierra Club’s search for “new light” in legislative history finds little support in Supreme Court precedent. It appears to be an artifact of in-circuit debate.)

Keep reading this post . . .

Halbig v. Burwell: D.C. Circuit Strikes Down Unlawful IRS Obamacare Subsidies


The D.C. Circuit just handed down its landmark decision in Halbig v. Burwell, a case challenging the IRS’s interpretation of its ability to grant tax subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. In a 2-1 decision, the D.C. Circuit vacated the IRS’s regulation on the grounds that the agency was not permitted to give tax subsidies except in states that had an Obamacare exchange “established by the State.” Judge Griffith wrote the majority opinion with Judge Randolph joining and writing a separate concurrence. Judge Edwards dissented.  

I am currently reading the opinion and will have thoughts once I’m finished. Until then, you might enjoy reading my previous Bench Memos coverage of the case here and here. It’s hard to overstate how important this decision is. 

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 22


2004—Continuing their unprecedented campaign of judicial filibusters, Senate Democrats exert their minority power to prevent cloture on President George W. Bush’s nominations of Richard A. Griffin, David W. McKeague, and Henry W. Saad to supposed Michigan seats on the Sixth Circuit. Griffin, first nominated in May 2003, and McKeague, first nominated in November 2001, are finally confirmed in June 2005. Saad, never confirmed, finally withdraws his nomination in March 2006.  

2013—Barely three weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, federal district judge Timothy S. Black enters an order barring the state of Ohio from applying its laws that prohibit recognition of same-sex “marriages.” Contending that “This is not a complicated case,” Black simply ignores those parts of Windsor that recognize the broad authority of each state to define and regulate marriage within its borders.

Black’s one-sided reading of Windsor will quickly be repeated by other judges.

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 20



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