Supreme Court Meets To Vote On Obamacare; Roberts Likely Holds Key Vote
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Mar 6, 2015 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard


Excerpted from The Los Angeles Times: When the Supreme Court justices met in private Friday to cast their votes and decide the reach of President Obama’s healthcare law, the outcome probably turned on the person who spoke first: Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

When the justices meet to decide cases, they vote in order of seniority, beginning with the chief justice. But even if the court’s customs did not set that order, it would have made sense in this case. With the court’s four liberal justices clearly ready to side with the administration, and three conservatives clearly lined up in opposition, Roberts, and perhaps Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, hold the deciding votes.

At stake is whether more than 7 million low- and moderate-income taxpayers can continue to receive subsidies that make their health insurance affordable.

Roberts uncharacteristically said little when the case was argued Wednesday. But the one substantive comment he did make has received intense scrutiny from lawyers and others trying to forecast whether the healthcare law will survive or be largely unraveled.

The comment involved a legal rule for how judges should resolve questions about big, ambiguous statutes.

Obama administration lawyers argue the Affordable Care Act, when read as a whole, shows that tax subsidies for health insurance are supposed to be available nationwide. The conservative groups challenging the law say its wording — that subsidies will be provided through an “Exchange established by the State” — mandate that the aid be allowed only in the handful of states that have opted to establish their own online healthcare marketplaces, rather than those that rely on the federal government’s site.

When a three-judge panel of the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia considered the case last year, they did not entirely agree with the administration.

“We cannot discern” just what Congress intended, said the panel, made up of Democratic appointees. But since the wording of the law was “ambiguous,” they said, the legal rule was to favor the interpretation made by the agency that administers it, in this case the Internal Revenue Service.

The rule that the interpretation by federal regulators wins in court if a law is unclear was set by the Supreme Court in 1984. It is known as the “Chevron doctrine” because it was set down in a case involving the giant oil company. The doctrine requires judges to be “highly deferential” to an agency’s interpretations of statutes, the appeals court explained.

Roberts is no fan of the Chevron rule. Two years ago, in a dissent he wrote in a case involving the Federal Communication Commission, he said he had a “fundamental” disagreement with giving regulators the benefit of the doubt in all cases.

The “vast and varied federal bureaucracy” churns out “reams of regulations [that] touch almost every aspect of daily life,” he said. “And more are on the way,” he added, pointing at the Affordable Care Act. Keep reading