Republican judge in Oklahoma rules against Obamacare tax subsidies

Posted by admin | Posted in Politics | Posted on 30-09-2014-05-2008

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Protesters outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act.

Judge Ronald A. White, an Oklahoma federal judge appointed to the bench by George W. Bush has just ruled that the subsidies cannot go to residents of states that are using the federal insurance exchanges. The case, Pruitt v. Burwell, mirrors Halbig v. Burwell and King v. Burwell in that it says a sloppy bit of wording in the law—which is contradicted by the legislative history, as well as intent of the law—means that only people residing in states that set up their own exchanges can receive subsidies.

Ian Millhiser has read White’s decision, and is not impressed.

One thing that immediately stands out in White’s opinion is just how thin his legal reasoning is. Despite the fact that this case concerns a matter of life and death for the millions of Americans he orders uninsured, his actual discussion of the merits of this case comprises less than 7 double-spaced pages of his opinion. In that brief analysis he quotes the two other Republican judges who ordered Obamacare defunded, claiming that “the government offers no textual basis” in the Affordable Care Act itself for treating federally-run exchanges the same as those run by states. In fact, the government has identified numerous provisions of the law which cut against the argument that only some exchanges should provide subsidies.

Even more significantly, White’s opinion does not at any point acknowledge the legal standard that applies when a statute contains language that is at odds with other provisions of the law. As the Supreme Court explained in 2007, “a reviewing court should not confine itself to examining a particular statutory provision in isolation” as the “meaning—or ambiguity—of certain words or phrases may only become evident when placed in context.” White, by contrast, relies entirely a passage that supports the plaintiffs’ arguments while ignoring the much more prevalent statutory language that supports the government’s argument. […]

So White’s opinion is poorly reasoned. It ignores binding Supreme Court precedent. And it engages in selective quotation to support his conclusion. If it is reviewed by a panel of judges interested in neutrally applying the law, White will be reversed.

The Tenth Circuit, which would hear an appeal, probably would reverse White. It has seven judges appointed by Democrats, including five Obama appointees, and five by Republicans. So far, the challenge has been considered by nine federal judges in three separate challenges. The only three to strike down the subsidies on the federal exchange are Republicans. There are a lot of moving parts with these challenges. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the law in King, and the D.C. Circuit recently set aside a Halbig ruling by a three-judge panel to consider the case with the full court. Plaintiffs in King have appealed to the Supreme Court, which appears to be waiting to see what the DC Circuit is going to do with Halbig. There’s also a fourth case in Indiana. A federal judge will hear those arguments next month.

Where this ends isn’t immediately clear. In a normal world, the Supreme Court would be waiting for the D.C. Circuit to throw out the case, and then would decide not to hear the King or Halbig appeals because the circuit courts would be in agreement. If that happened, the other two would end. But the Supreme Court isn’t functioning particularly normally anymore. But the key thing that would be weighing in Chief Justice John Roberts’ mind right now is the fact that hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people would lose their health insurance if the subsidies are struck down. Taking that away wouldn’t be a much of a legacy.

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