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Law & the Courts

Senator Whitehouse’s Opening Salvo at Barrett Hearing: Dems’ Obamacare Diatribe

Federal government forms for applying for health coverage at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act in 2013. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) is among the most insufferable hacks on Capitol Hill. It was he, recall, who suggested that energy companies should be sued under the federal racketeering laws for purportedly being “deniers” of climate change. He was also the laboring oar among a handful of Senate Democrats on an unhinged court amicus brief in a recent Supreme Court Second Amendment case, extortionately threatening that the Court could be “restructured” — translation: subjected to ruinous partisan court packing — if the justices continued what the senator portrayed as its Trump-era conservative drift.

So it comes as no surprise that Whitehouse’s opening statement in the confirmation hearing on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court was an absurd attack along lines I have previously described: Republicans are supposedly desperate to get Barrett on the Court so she can be the deciding vote to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in toto, including its guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Whitehouse’s diatribe was aimed less at Judge Barrett than at Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas.), a supporter of the district judge in Texas (a Bush-43 appointee), whose ruling is at the center of the case now before the Supreme Court.

There is no chance that the justices are going to invalidate the ACA. I doubt a single one would vote to do that. I repeat what I wrote about this nonsense two weeks ago:

The notion that Judge Barrett, or for that matter the other Trump appointees to the Supreme Court, are on the warpath against the Affordable Care Act is laughable. The ACA issue is being contorted into a convenient political talking point in the stretch-run of a presidential campaign because President Trump, foolishly and reportedly against the advice of Attorney General Barr, has supported a weak legal challenge to the law. The case is California v. Texas, and the justices are scheduled to hear arguments about it on November 10.

In my view, this is a rare case of conservative judicial activism, which itself is very unconservative. That is, Texas federal district judge Reed O’Connor, who is a fine judge, erred in this case by doing what conservatives properly fault liberal judges for doing: He imposed a policy preference, rather than deciding the case in accordance with the law and leaving policymaking to Congress.

In 2017, with Republicans controlling the House and Senate and with President Trump’s support, Congress zeroed out the penalty for non-compliance with the Obamacare individual mandate. Notwithstanding scores of proposals to “repeal and replace” the ACA, Congress did not do so; lawmakers left the remainder of the complex legislative scheme in place.

Even so, 18 attorneys general from red states, aping the destructive practice of their blue state counterparts, filed a lawsuit theorizing that Congress had implicitly done what it had actually declined to do, namely, repeal the ACA. Essentially, the red-state AGs (a) pointed out that the Supreme Court (thanks to the legerdemain of Chief Justice Roberts) had upheld the ACA as a tax in the 2012 case of National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius (NFIB); (b) asserted that this rationale for upholding the ACA is no longer valid because Congress’s 2017 zeroing out of the penalty (in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) means the mandate cannot be a tax, there being no tax without a penalty; and (c) therefore argued that, since the mandate was so central to the ACA, the entire ACA must fall. For standing purposes, the 18 states were joined by two individuals alleging concrete harm, and were supported by the Trump Justice Department (under then-attorney general Jeff Sessions).

In late 2018, Judge O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, agreed with the Republican AGs that the mandate could no longer be construed as an exercise of Congress’s taxing power. Thus, he reasoned, since the tax construction was what saved the ACA from constitutional infirmity in NFIB, and since that construction is no longer justifiable after the 2017 legislation, the mandate is perforce unconstitutional. Moreover, because the mandate is inextricably tied to key components of Obamacare (including coverage of people with preexisting conditions), O’Connor deduced that it is not severable from the rest of the ACA, meaning the ACA is unconstitutional in toto.

Subsequently, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed Judge O’Connor’s decision that the mandate is unconstitutional. But the appellate court did not uphold O’Connor’s inseverability finding, reasoning that the issue called for a more “granular” analysis. It therefore remanded the case to O’Connor for a more exacting inquiry. California — leading a coalition of 19 states plus the District of Columbia that support the ACA — pressed for an immediate Supreme Court review, arguing that the implications for public health care were too important to abide further doubt and delay. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

It takes more effort to provide that description of the litigation than to tackle the bottom line. To my mind, the only question about the Supreme Court’s resolution of California v. Texas is whether a single justice will vote to hold the whole of the ACA unconstitutional. I doubt it.

Indeed, I am skeptical that a majority of the Court will even agree with Judge O’Connor and the Fifth Circuit that the mere zeroing out of a tax is the functional equivalent of repealing it, such that the mandate, technically, is no longer a tax. Regardless, though, the Court is not going to hold that the mandate is inseverable from the rest of Obamacare. You can take that to the bank.

We can be confident that there are at least five, and probably six, solid votes for severability. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh emphatically endorsed the presumption in favor of severability just last term (here and here). Justice Alito agreed with them, as did the three liberal justices remaining on the Court after Justice Ginsburg’s death — Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan — who will surely vote to preserve as much of the ACA as possible. Furthermore, I suspect Justices Thomas and Gorsuch will side with this majority — and if they don’t, their position is apt to be even more deferential to Congress. They have each suggested that the Court get out of the business of analyzing severability and simply refuse to uphold any portions of a statute found to be invalid, leaving the rest up to lawmakers. In addition, they would be very stingy about who has standing to challenge statutes based on alleged harms.

Contrary to the claim that there is a Trump litmus test that requires killing Obamacare, there is actually no reason to assume that the Trump appointees already on the Supreme Court (Gorsuch and Kavanaugh) are going to vote to invalidate the ACA. The best bet on what a Justice Barrett would do is that she would either (a) agree to follow the presumption in favor of severability that the Court has recently reaffirmed; or (b) question whether the plaintiffs challenging the ACA have standing and whether the Court should do any severability analysis relating to parts of the ACA that are not properly before the Court.

Of course, I could be wrong. Judge Barrett is very smart, and she could have an analysis that none of us Court-watchers have thought of. Still, there is no basis to believe that she is on a mission to eradicate the ACA. This is an unfounded political talking point.

Politically speaking, President Trump shot himself in the foot by ordering the Justice Department to support the red-state lawsuit. It has little or no chance of prevailing, and it makes him vulnerable to the false charge that he favors eliminating coverage for pre-existing conditions at a time when COVID-19 and high unemployment have intensified voter concerns about access to health insurance. Naturally, since one of the Democrats’ main campaign themes is that Trump is bent on eliminating Obamacare, they are telling people that getting Judge Barrett on the Court is part of that plan.

To the contrary, Barrett does not believe it is the federal judiciary’s role to make health-care policy. There is scant reason to presume that she would invalidate the ACA, and every reason to suspect she’d point out that doing so is up to Congress, which could have repealed it but opted not to.

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