Chief Justice John Roberts broke with his three conservative colleagues on the Supreme Court and voted to uphold a key provision of the Affordable Care Act on Thursday.
Roberts wrote the majority opinion, and in it, he rejected the challengers’ argument that Congress intended to use the provision of Obamacare in question as a weapon of coercion against states. And in proving his point, he used words from his dissenting colleagues — one of whom took a shot at Roberts on Thursday — from a separate Obamacare-related case three years ago.
The key question in the case centered on whether the federal government had the ability to provide subsidies to help low-income Americans buy health insurance.
The challengers in the case argued the way the law was written does not allow for subsidized insurance in states where the federal government had set up insurance exchanges. Instead, the challengers argued, insurance subsidies are allowed only in states that have set up their own exchanges. They pointed to a clause that they argued meant exchanges should be “established by the state.” Thirty-four states currently rely on the federal marketplace.
In the opinion of the court, Roberts wrote that their challenge was plausible — but that their underlying theory was not. As evidence, he cited the dissent from Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito in the 2012 case that upheld Obamacare’s mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance or else pay a penalty.
Here’s what Roberts wrote in Thursday’s opinion (emphasis added):
It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner. See National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U. S. ___, ___ (2012) (SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., dissenting) (slip op., at 60) (“Without the federal subsidies . . . the exchanges would not operate as Congress intended and may not operate at all.”). Congress made the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements applicable in every State in the Nation. But those requirements only work when combined with the coverage requirement and the tax credits. So it stands to reason that Congress meant for those provisions to apply in every State as well.”
Roberts’ opinion suggested he viewed the wording of the law as ambiguous but thought the intent of Congress was clear. Congress, he wrote, always had the intention of subsidies being provided nationwide.
“Had Congress meant to limit tax credits to State Exchanges, it likely would have done so in the definition of ‘applicable taxpayer’ or in some other prominent manner,” Roberts wrote. “It would not have used such a winding path of connect-the-dots provisions about the amount of the credit.”
He’s basically telling his colleagues: I’m right, and your words prove it.
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