A Big Victory for Obamacare

So as I suspected would happen, King v. Burwell came down from SCOTUS this morning. And unless I’m missing something lurking in the opinion, it was an unqualified victory for the administration and for Obamacare.

In a 6-3 decision with the Chief Justice writing the opinion, the Court deemed the language in the Affordable Care Act setting up exchanges as “ambiguous,” but also ruled that in the broader context of the law it would be absurd to interpret it as limiting purchasing subsidies to states setting up their own exchanges, since all of the other elements of the system set up by ACA were national in scope. The Court also explicitly said it was not relying on what is called the Chevron doctrine of deferring to agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes. That’s important because a Chevron rationale would mean a future Republican administration could change the interpretation and kill the subsidies. In other words, if Republicans win the White House in 2016, they’ll have to repeal Obamacare via legislation, and without a manufactured “emergency” produced by a change in how the IRS interprets the subsidy language in ACA.

I haven’t read it all yet, but Scalia’s dissent (joined by Alito and Thomas, of course) appears to be an angry, sarcastic screed mocking the refusal of the Court to accept the “plain meaning” of the statutory language authorizing subsidies for states setting up their own exchanges.

So all the talk about post-King this and post-King that was indeed moot, though it’s been useful to see how messy a transition out of Obamacare might be, and how poorly prepared and divided Republicans are on what should come next.

There was another “liberal” decision by the Court this morning on a housing discrimination case (allowing, under very limited terms, use of “disparate impact” arguments rather than requiring proof of discriminatory intent. That 5-4 decision was written by Kennedy. So particularly if, as most people expect, Kennedy writes the main opinion establishing a federal constitutional right to marriage, we’re going to hear some big-time shrieking from conservatives about their “betrayal” by Roberts and Kennedy.

Somewhere up in New Hampshire, David Souter is probably chuckling.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.