To my mind, the most astonishing aspect of Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion in King v. Burwell is that it actually puts Obamacare’s opponents in a worse position than they were in before the lawsuit. Pre-King, the IRS had simply promulgated a rule that subsidies must be available to people in every state, regardless of the presence of an exchange. The Obama administration argued that, if the court found the text ambiguous, it should defer to the IRS and allow its rule to go forward. (This is the so-called Chevron deference.) Under that logic, a future administration could revoke the subsidies in states with no exchange just as easily as the Obama administration made the subsidies universally available.
But on Thursday, Roberts held that the Chevron deference doesn’t apply. The subsidy question, he explains, is one of deep “economic and political significance” that cuts to the core of the law. Thus, “[t]his is not a case for the IRS. It is instead our task to determine the correct reading of” the disputed section. Roberts then writes that “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” so the court must hold that the “correct reading” of the law required subsidies to be made available in all 50 states.
This is a breathtaking holding—and an absolutely devastating defeat for the conservatives who brought this challenge to Obamacare. What might have been an ambiguous portion of the text—and an opportunity for a future president to wreck the law—has now been made unambiguous by the court.
No wonder, then, that Justice Antonin Scalia was hopping mad, writing in his dissent that the majority’s logic is “[p]ure applesauce” and “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The court didn’t just save Obamacare from this challenge; it also saved it from potential future sabotage. The court’s hardcore conservatives may be furious—but the president has a lot of celebrating to do.
Other great articles in Slate: