Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Thoughts From Reading the King v. Burwell Transcript

I took a little time to read the transcript from today's Supreme Court oral arguments in King v. Burwell.

If you want to read the transcript, you can find it here. It's always a dicey proposition to read anything into how the Justices will rule from their questions/comments at oral argument, but here are a few of my impressions:

1. Justice Ginsburg immediately jumped on the issue of standing from the get-go. After some back and forth, and with what ultimately seemed like a concession from the Government, the likelihood of kicking the case out on a lack of standing seems extremely remote.

2. Justice Kagan seemed to have gotten the better of Petitioner's counsel with her hypothetical about law-clerks and memo writing, but Alito jumped to the rescue with such a good response that even Kagan remarked of Alito "He's good."

3. The real question seems to be where Justice Kennedy is going to land. He seems to want to say that the Petitioner's argument necessarily requires the conclusion that conditioning subsidies on states setting up the exchanges is coercive, and would therefore be unconstitutional. Obviously, this would result in disruption of everyone who got a subsidy in the states where HHS set up the exchanges, and Kennedy seemed loathe to make that leap. Petitioner's counsel responded to Kennedy by observing that the government hadn't made that that argument, and Kennedy says "Sometimes we think of things the government doesn't".

4. Carrying that last point further, the real question seems to be whether Kennedy is willing to interpret the statute in a manner that avoids having to find the statute to be unconstitutional under the avoidance doctrine. I think that Kennedy wants to say it's unconstitutional, but I think he's concerned with the resulting effects of what happens if he makes that finding. Ultimately, I think he'll avoid doing so, and the Government's position will prevail.

5. The Government's counsel took a little bit of a shot at Congress when Justice Scalia pressed him on why the Congress wouldn't just amend the statute if the Court accepts the Petitioner's position. Scalia says "You really think Congress is just going to sit there while ­­ while all of these disastrous consequences ensue?" and the Government's lawyer responds somewhat tongue-in-cheek with "Well...this Congress, Your Honor? I...I..." to which there's some general laughter at Congress' expense.

Ultimately, I think the Government will win this because I think the easy place for Kennedy to land is that there is a little bit of ambiguity in the statute, so you go with the interpretation that doesn't render the statute unconstitutional. That' just my guess, anyway. I would be surprised if the Court did something radical and essentially forced Congress and President Obama to fix the law.

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