What You Need to Know About Friday’s Court Ruling

Late Friday evening, a judge in Texas handed down his ruling in the latest Obamacare lawsuit. Here’s what you need to know about the ruling (if interested, you can read the opinion here), and what might happen next:

What Did the Judge Decide?

The opinion contained analyzed two different issues—the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and whether the rest of Obamacare could survive without the individual mandate (i.e., severability). In the first half of his opinion, Judge Reed O’Connor ruled the mandate unconstitutional.

Wait—Haven’t Courts Ruled on the Individual Mandate Before?

Yes—and no. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate constitutional. In his majority opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts (in)famously concluded that, even though Obamacare’s authors proclaimed the mandate was not a tax—and said as much in the law—the mandate had the characteristics of a tax. Even though Roberts concluded that the mandate exceeded Congress’ constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause, he upheld it as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power to tax.

However, in the tax bill last year Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning on January 1, 2019. The plaintiffs argued that, because the mandate will no longer bring in revenue for the federal government, it no longer qualifies as a tax. Because the mandate will not function as a tax, and violates Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, the plaintiffs argued that the court should declare the mandate unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge O’Connor agreed with this logic, and struck down the mandate.

What Impact Would Striking Down the Mandate Have?

Not much, seeing as how the penalty falls to zero in two weeks’ time. Striking the mandate from the statute books officially, as opposed to merely setting the penalty at zero, would only affect those individuals who feel an obligation to follow the law, even without a penalty for violating that law. In setting their premiums for 2019, most insurers have already assumed the mandate goes away.

Then Why Is This Ruling Front Page News?

If the court case hinged solely on whether or not the (already-defanged) mandate should get stricken entirely, few would care—indeed, the plaintiffs may not have brought it in the first place. Instead, the main question in this case focuses on severability—the question of whether, and how much, of the law can be severed from the mandate, if the mandate is declared unconstitutional.

What Happened on Severability?

Judge O’Connor quoted heavily from opinions in the prior 2012 Supreme Court case, particularly the joint dissent by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. He ruled that the justices viewed the mandate as an “essential” part of Obamacare, that the main pillars of the law were inseparable from the mandate.

The judge also noted that some of the lesser elements of Obamacare (e.g., calorie counts on restaurant menus, etc.) hitched a ride on a “moving target,” that he could not—and should not—attempt to determine which would have passed on their own. Therefore, he ruled that the entire law must be stricken.

Haven’t Things Changed Since the 2012 Ruling?

Last year, Congress famously couldn’t agree on how to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare—but then voted to set the mandate penalty to zero. A bipartisan group of legal scholars argued in this case that, because Congress eliminated the mandate penalty but left the rest of the law intact, courts should defer to Congress’ more recent judgment. Judge O’Connor disagreed.

What Happens Now?

Good question. Judge O’Connor did NOT issue an injunction with his ruling, so the law remains in effect. The White House released a statement saying as much—that it would continue to enforce the law as written pending likely appeals.

On the appeal front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general who intervened in the suit will likely request a hearing from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. From there the Supreme Court could decide to rule on the case.

Will Appellate Courts Agree with This Ruling and Strike Down Obamacare?

As the saying goes, past performance is no predictor of future results. However, it is worth noting two important facts:

1.      The five justice majority that upheld most of the law—John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotamayor—all remain on the Supreme Court.
2.      As noted above, Chief Justice Roberts went through what many conservatives attacked as a bout of legal sophistry—calling the mandate a tax, even though Congress expressly said it wasn’t—to uphold the law, more than a year before its main provisions took effect.

What About Pre-Existing Conditions?

On Friday evening, President Trump asked for Congress to pass a measure that “protects pre-existing conditions.”

I have outlined other alternatives to Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions. However, as I have explained at length over the past 18 months, if Republicans want to retain—or in this case reinstate—Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions, then they are failing in their promise to repeal the law.

“SCOTUSCare” Redux? How Brett Kavanaugh Helped Uphold Obamacare

In a 2015 dissent to an Obamacare case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously opined that the court had concluded “that this limitation would prevent the rest of [Obamacare] from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law.… We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”

Last week’s retirement announcement from Justice Anthony Kennedy, coupled with news placing Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, high on President Trump’s list to replace Kennedy, has drawn attention back to the legal wrangling over the law. Some observers have claimed that Kavanaugh, in a 2011 opinion written when the D.C. Circuit considered Obamacare’s constitutionality, supported the law’s individual mandate.

Extended Discussion of the Anti-Injunction Act

Most of Kavanaugh’s opinion discusses interpretations of statute that hardly qualify as an enlightening discourse of constitutional principles. Whereas his two circuit court colleagues upheld the mandate as a valid exercise of Congress’ power under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Kavanaugh “dissent[ed] as to jurisdiction and [did] not decide the merits.”

Kavanaugh’s dissent arose from his belief that the 1867 Anti-Injunction Act precluded the court from deciding the merits of the individual mandate. The Anti-Injunction Act prevents individuals from challenging the validity of taxes in court until after they have paid them, which if applied to Obamacare’s mandate (which took effect in 2014) meant that a court challenge would not ripen until individuals had paid the mandate penalty on their taxes—i.e., in spring 2015, or nearly four years after the D.C. Circuit ruling.

Kavanaugh spends the better part of 50 pages—longer than the majority opinion justifying the mandate as constitutional—analyzing the Internal Revenue Code, and the Anti-Injunction Act, to support his belief that the mandate qualified as a tax under the act, forestalling any legal or constitutional challenge until after individuals had paid it. He cautions “the reader that some of the following is not for the faint of heart”—a true enough warning, as much of the opinion devolves into tedium that only a tax lawyer could love.

While Roberts disagreed with Kavanaugh’s reasoning about applying the Anti-Injunction Act to the Obamacare mandate, such differences over the interpretation of a 150-year-old statute hardly rise to the level of disqualifying for a potential Supreme Court nominee.

A Bit of Judicial Restraint…

Indeed, three-quarters of Kavanaugh’s ruling provides a worthy defense of judicial restraint—judges avoiding decisions on weighty questions wherever possible. He argues that courts should defer to Congress, which enacted the Anti-Injunction Act in the first place:

The jurisdictional status of the Anti-Injunction Act reflects the Constitution’s separation of powers in operation.  Under the Constitution, Congress possesses the power to tax and spend, as well as the power of the purse over appropriations of money. Congress zealously guards those prerogatives. Here, Congress has not afforded discretion to the Executive Branch to waive or forfeit the Anti-Injunction Act’s bar with respect to the assessment and collection of taxes. Rather, by making the Anti-Injunction Act jurisdictional, Congress has commanded courts to abide by the Act even when the Executive Branch might not assert it.

He also disregards efforts by the Obama administration, in attempts to provide policy certainty regarding Obamacare, encouraging the courts to decide the merits of the individual mandate before it took effect, rather than invoking the Anti-Injunction Act to bar the suits until 2015:

We must adhere to the statutory constraints on our jurisdiction no matter how much the parties might want us to jump the jurisdictional rails and decide this case now….By waiting, we would respect the bedrock principle of judicial restraint that courts avoid prematurely or unnecessarily deciding constitutional questions.

Followed by Judicial Activism

The last section of Kavanaugh’s opinion explains why he believes the courts should not decide the constitutionality of the individual mandate: “this case could disappear by 2015 because, by then, Congress may fix the alleged constitutional shortcoming and ensure that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate provision fits comfortably within Congress’ Taxing Clause power.”

In Kavanaugh’s view, the mandate could fit “comfortably” within Congress’ constitutional powers. Even as he “do[es] not take a position her on whether the statute as currently written is justifiable,” Kavanaugh concludes that “the only potential Taxing Clause shortcoming in the current individual mandate provision appears to be relatively slight” (emphasis in the original).

Several pages thereafter, Kavanaugh continues to answer a question nobody asked him, giving the legislature instructions on how to remedy the in-his-view minor constitutional infirmity:

This discussion about the potential problem with the Government’s Taxing Clause argument also shows how easily Congress could eliminate any such potential problem.  For example, Congress might keep the current statutory language and payment amounts and simply add a provision as basic as: “The taxpayer has a lawful choice either to maintain health insurance or make the payment to the IRS required by Section 5000A(a)-(c).” Or Congress might retain the exactions and payment amounts as they are but eliminate the legal mandate language in Section 5000A, instead providing something to the effect of: “An applicable individual without minimum essential coverage must make a payment to the IRS on his or her tax return in the amounts listed in Section 5000A(c).” Or Congress could adopt the approach from the House-passed bill, which expressly created a tax incentive and plainly satisfied the Taxing Clause.

Any of those options—and others as well—would ensure that this provision operates as a traditional regulatory tax and readily satisfies the Taxing Clause.

Kavanaugh’s Roadmap to Save Obamacare

Some will note the irony of Kavanaugh’s opinion stating that “no court to reach the merits has accepted the Government’s Taxing Clause argument.” Josh Blackman notes in his book “Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare” that Solicitor General Donald Verilli “advanced this very argument”—that severing the mandate to buy health insurance from the tax for not buying health insurance would make the latter constitutional—“at the Supreme Court.”

The gambit worked. Roberts ultimately relied upon that argument from Verilli by way of Kavanaugh to uphold the mandate as a constitutional exercise of the taxing power. That Kavanaugh, like Roberts, used the last few pages of his opinion to decry the “unprecedented” nature of a mandate upheld via the Commerce Clause power does not mitigate his favorable analysis of a mandate upheld via the Taxing Clause power.

Other analysts with more experience in constitutional and legal jurisprudence (and perhaps less experience in health policy) can opine on other parts of Kavanaugh’s record. But his opinion on Obamacare, while starting out with an admirable nod toward judicial restraint, unfortunately veered in an activist direction that gives this conservative serious pause.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Absurdity of the Justice Department’s Obamacare Lawsuit Intervention

Last summer, I wrote about how President Trump had created the worst of all possible outcomes regarding one Obamacare program. In threatening to cancel cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, but not actually doing so, the administration forced insurers into raising premiums, while not complying with the rule of law by cutting off the payments outright.

Eventually, the administration finally did cut off the payments in October, but for several months, the uncertainty represented a self-inflicted wound. So too a brief filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) late last week regarding an Obamacare lawsuit several states brought in February, which asked the court to strike down both Obamacare’s individual mandate and the most important of its federally imposed insurance regulations.

It takes a very unique set of circumstances to arrive at this level of opposition. Herewith the policy, legal, and political implications of DOJ’s actions.

Let’s Talk Policy First

Strictly as a policy matter, I agree with the general tenor of the Justice Department’s proposals. Last April, I analyzed Obamacare’s four major federally imposed insurance regulations:

  1. Guaranteed issue—accepting all applicants, regardless of health status;
  2. Community rating—charging all applicants the same premiums, regardless of health status;
  3. Essential health benefits—requiring plans to cover certain types of services; and
  4. Actuarial value—requiring plans to cover a certain percentage of each service.

I concluded that these four regulations represented a binary choice for policymakers: Either Congress should repeal them all, and allow insurers to price individuals’ health risk accordingly, or leave them all in place. Picking and choosing would likely result in unintended consequences.

The Justice Department’s brief asks the federal court to strike down the first two federal regulations, but not the last two. This outcome could have some unintended consequences, as a New York Times analysis notes.

But repealing the guaranteed issue and community rating regulations would remove the prime driver of premium increases under Obamacare. Those two regulations led rates for individual coverage to more than double from 2013 to 2017, necessitating the requirement for individuals to purchase, and employers to offer, health coverage, the subsidies to make coverage more “affordable,” and the tax increases and Medicare reductions used to fund them.

I noted last April that Republicans have a choice: They can either keep the status quo on pre-existing conditions or they can fulfill their promise to repeal Obamacare. They cannot do both. The DOJ brief acknowledges this dilemma, and that the regulations represent the heart of the Obamacare scheme.

Legal Question 1: Constitutionality

Roberts held that, while the federal government did not have the power to compel individuals to purchase health coverage under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Congress did have the power to impose a tax penalty on the non-purchase of coverage, and upheld the individual mandate on that basis.

But late last year, Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, with the provision taking effect next January. Both the plaintiff states and DOJ argue that, because the mandate will not generate revenue for the federal government beyond 2019, it can no longer function as a tax, and should be struck down as unconstitutional.

Ironically, if Congress took an unconstitutional act in setting the mandate penalty to zero, few seem to have spent little time arguing as much prior to the tax bill’s enactment last December. I opposed Congress’ action at the time, because I thought Congress needed to repeal more of Obamacare—i.e., the regulations discussed above. But few raised any concerns that setting the mandate penalty to zero represented an unconstitutional act:

  • While one school of thought suggests presidents should not sign unconstitutional legislation, President Trump signed the tax bill into law.
  • Likewise, President Trump did not issue a signing statement about the tax bill, seemingly indicating that the Trump administration had no concerns about the bill, constitutional or otherwise.
  • While in 2009 the Senate took a separate vote on the constitutionality of Obamacare, no one raised such a point of order during the Senate’s debate on the tax bill.
  • I used to work for one of the plaintiffs in the states’ lawsuit, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. TPPF put out no statement challenging the constitutionality of Congress’ move in the tax bill.

Legal Question 2: Severability

As others have noted, a court decision striking down the individual mandate as unconstitutional would by itself have few practical ramifications, given that Congress already set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning in January. The major fight lies in severability—either striking down the entire law, as the states request, or striking down the two major federal insurance regulations, as the Justice Department suggested last week.

The DOJ brief and the states’ original complaint both cite Section 1501(a) of Obamacare in making their claims to strike down more than just the mandate. DOJ cited that section—which called the mandate “essential to creating effective health insurance markets”—13 times in a 21-page brief, while the states cited that section 18 times in a 33-page complaint.

But that claim fails, for several reasons. First, the list of findings in Section 1501(a)(2) of the law discusses the mandate’s “effects on the national economy and interstate commerce.” In other words, this section of findings attempted to defend the individual mandate as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause—an argument Roberts struck down in the NFIB v. Sebelius ruling six years ago.

Second, the plaintiffs and the Justice Department briefs focus more on what a Congress eight years ago said—i.e., their non-binding findings to defend the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause—than what the current Congress did when it set the mandate penalty to zero, but left the rest of Obamacare intact. The Justice Department tried to retain a fig leaf of consistency by taking the same position regarding severability that the Obama administration did before the Supreme Court in 2012: that if the mandate falls, the guaranteed issue and community rating provisions (and only those provisions) should as well.

However, the Justice Department’s brief all but ignores Congress’s intervention last year. In a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) regarding the lawsuit, Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that “We presume that Congress legislates with knowledge of the [Supreme] Court’s findings.” A corollary to that maxim should find that the administration takes decisions with knowledge of Congress’ actions.

But rather than observing how this Congress zeroed out the mandate penalty while leaving the rest of Obamacare intact, DOJ claimed that the 2010 findings should control, because Congress did not repeal them. (Due to procedural concerns surrounding budget reconciliation, Senate Republicans arguably could not have repealed them in last year’s tax bill even if they wanted to.)

Third, as the brief by a series of Democratic state attorneys general—who received permission to intervene in the case—makes plain, Republican members of Congress said repeatedly during the tax bill debate last year that they were not changing any other part of the law. For instance, during the Senate Finance Committee markup of the tax bill, the committee’s chairman, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), said the following:

Let us be clear, repealing the [mandate] tax does not take anyone’s health insurance away. No one would lose access to coverage or subsidies that help them pay for coverage unless they chose not to enroll in health coverage once the penalty for doing so is no longer in effect. No one would be kicked off of Medicare. No one would lose insurance they are currently getting from insurance carriers. Nothing—nothing—in the modified mark impacts Obamacare policies like coverage for preexisting conditions or restrictions against lifetime limits on coverage….

The bill does nothing to alter Title 1 of Obamacare, which includes all of the insurance mandates and requirements related to preexisting conditions and essential health benefits.

As noted above, I want Congress to repeal more of Obamacare—all of it, in fact. But what I want to happen and what Congress did are two different things. When Congress explicitly set the mandate penalty to zero but left the rest of the law intact, I should not (and will not) go running to an activist judge trying to get him or her to ignore the will of Congress and strike all of it down regardless. That’s what liberals do.

Too Cute by Half Problem 1: Legal Outcomes

The brief the Democratic attorneys general filed suggested another possible outcome—one that would not please the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. While the attorneys general attempted to defend the mandate’s constitutionality despite the impending loss of the tax penalty, they offered another solution should the court find the revised mandate unconstitutional:

Under long-standing principles of statutory construction, when a legislature purports to amend an existing statute in a way that would render the statute (or part of the statute) unconstitutional, the amendment is void, and the statute continues to operate as it did before the invalid amendment was enacted.

It remains to be seen whether the courts will find this argument credible. But if they do, a lawsuit seeking to strike down all of Obamacare could actually restore part of it, by getting the court to reinstate the tax penalties associated with the mandate.

This scenario could get worse. In 2015, the Senate parliamentarian offered guidance that Congress could set the mandate penalty to zero, but not repeal it outright, as part of a budget reconciliation bill. Republicans used this precedent to zero-out the mandate in last year’s tax bill. But a court ruling stating that Congress cannot constitutionally set the mandate penalty to zero, and must instead repeal it outright, means Senate Republicans would have to muster 60 votes to do so—an outcome meaning the mandate might never get repealed.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of King v. Burwell. In its opinion, the court ruled that individuals in states that did not establish their own exchanges (and used the federally run healthcare.gov instead) could qualify for health insurance subsidies. By codifying an ambiguity in the Obamacare statute in favor of the subsidies, the court’s ruling prevented the Trump administration from later taking executive action to block those subsidies.

In King v. Burwell, litigating over uncertainty in Obamacare ended up precluding a future administration from taking action to dismantle it. The same thing could happen with this newest lawsuit.

Too Cute by Half Problem 2: Legislative Action

Sooner or later, someone will recognize an easy solution exists that would solve both the problem of constitutionality and severability: Congress passing legislation to repeal the mandate outright, after the tax bill set the penalty to zero. But this scenario could lead to all sorts of inconsistent, yet politically convenient, outcomes:

  • Democrats attacking Republicans over last week’s DOJ brief might oppose repealing a (now-defanged) individual mandate, because it would remove what they view as a powerful political issue heading into November’s midterm elections;
  • Republicans afraid of Democrats’ political attacks might say they repealed a part of Obamacare (i.e., the individual mandate) outright to “protect” the rest of Obamacare (i.e., the federal regulations and other assorted components of the law) from being struck down by an activist judge; and
  • Some on the Right might oppose Congress taking action to repeal “just” the individual mandate, because they want the courts to strike down the entire law—even though such a job rightly lies within Congress’ purview.

As others have noted, these contortionistic, “Through the Looking Glass” scenarios speak volumes about the tortured basis for this lawsuit. The Trump administration should spend less time writing briefs that support legislating from the bench by unelected judges, and more time working with Congress to do its job and repeal the law itself.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.