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.

Liberals’ Ridiculous Health Care Charges Against Brett Kavanaugh

So much for subtle. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) placed health care at the top of the list of reasons to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, throwing in some over-the-top rhetoric in the process:

We Democrats believe the No. 1 issue in America is health care and the ability for people to get good health care at prices they can afford. The nomination of Mr. Kavanaugh would put a dagger through the heart of that cherished belief that most Americans have.

Put aside for a moment that Obamacare itself has “put a dagger through the heart” of people’s ability “to get good health care at prices they can afford” by more than doubling individual insurance premiums during President Obama’s second term. The idea that a pending lawsuit would allow the Supreme Court to strike down Obamacare, and that a Justice Kavanaugh would cast the deciding vote to do so, ranges from implausible to ridiculous, for at least three reasons.

Second, as I previously noted, Kavanaugh wrote an opinion in 2011 that, while deferring a definitive judgment on the merits, suggested an inclination to uphold Obamacare’s mandate as constitutional. In one footnote of his opinion, Kavanaugh noted that “the fact that an exaction is not labeled a tax does not vitiate Congress’s [sic] power under the Taxing Clause.” To Kavanaugh, it mattered not that Congress said the mandate was not a tax to justify it as such under the Constitution—the same logic that troubled conservatives about Roberts’ ruling in the mandate case.

Kavanaugh did seem troubled by the fact that Obamacare contains both a statutory requirement to buy coverage and a penalty (“tax”) for those who fail to do so. But another footnote suggested a way out:

At oral argument, counsel for the Government argued that a citizen who refused to obtain health insurance would still be acting lawfully. If that were true, the mandate would presumably pass muster under the Taxing Clause. But it is not evident that the statutory language is fairly susceptible to such an interpretation. That said, perhaps the canon of constitutional avoidance would allow such an interpretation of this provision and thereby squeeze it within the Taxing Clause.

Roberts did exactly what Kavanaugh suggested, eliminating the “perhaps” from Kavanaugh’s last sentence, and defending the mandate as permissible under Congress’ Taxing Clause power.

Wall Street firms often note that past performance does not equate to future results, a motto worth noting here. But it seems highly unlikely that a judge willing to justify what Congress itself termed a “penalty” as a tax, and who cited the “canon of constitutional avoidance” as a way to uphold Obamacare, would suddenly vote to strike down the entire law—after Congress just last year declined to do so. (In fact, the Supreme Court may not even vote to hear the case at all.) All this makes Schumer’s talk of “dagger[s] through the heart” so much noise.

Schumer’s Strategy Could Be Improved

One could make a compelling argument that, if Schumer really wanted to defeat the Kavanaugh nomination, he would take the opposite tack, and “hug him close” on Obamacare. An exercise in trolling conservatives could cause them some serious discomfort: “We know Judge Kavanaugh would uphold Obamacare at the Supreme Court, because he laid the roadmap for saving Obamacare there six years ago.”

But Schumer has instead tried to play the health care card against Kavanaugh, for any number of potential reasons.

  • He worries about over-emphasizing abortion rights during the confirmation process, which could cause political heartburn for several Senate Democrats running for re-election this year in states Donald Trump won in 2016;
  • He wants to preview themes Democrats will push in the election campaign this fall;
  • He doesn’t want to anger Democrats’ base by conceding the health care issue, as they want him to fight Kavanaugh’s nomination and support Obamacare, even if doing so could improve the chances of defeating the nomination; and/or
  • He thinks it unlikely he can defeat Kavanaugh, and wants to keep his caucus united rather than make a long-shot tactical gamble that could divide Democrats.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.