A major win for judicial restraint

The Supreme Court’s ruling preserves health care for millions of citizens.
The Supreme Court’s ruling preserves health care for millions of citizens. BLOOMBERG

Chief Justice John Roberts just saved the Affordable Care Act – again. If you’re feeling déjà vu, you’re not alone. As he did in 2012, Roberts defected from his conservative colleagues and joined the court’s liberals in refusing to send Obamacare into a death-spiral.

In King v. Burwell, Roberts has now cemented his reputation as a true believer in judicial restraint – perhaps as the only justice who still believes in it. And this time, he was given cover by Justice Anthony Kennedy, making the vote 6-3.

The opinion was straightforward. Roberts acknowledged that the provision of the ACA at issue in the case, providing subsidies for individuals to buy health insurance, was badly drafted. It should’ve read that the subsides were available for insurance exchanges “established by the state or on behalf of the state,” he implied. Instead it read only, “established by the state.” The petitioners argued this meant the subsidies couldn’t go to people buying insurance on the federally established exchange.

Roberts explained (with considerable understatement) that the ACA contains “more than a few examples of inartful drafting.” The law was passed in a hurry, and drafted “behind closed doors,” he pointed out.

But the very bad drafting of the ACA turned out to be its saving grace. Instead of reading the “established by the state” line literally, eliminating subsidies to federally established exchanges, he concluded that the line was ambiguous when taken in context.

The admission of ambiguity led Roberts to ask about the context of the entire statute. And there, he reasoned, Congress couldn’t have intended to put in a sentence that would break the act and send insurance markets into a death spiral.

Roberts quoted an essay on statutory interpretation by the great Justice Felix Frankfurter, the father of the modern idea of judicial restraint. Frankfurter described a cartoon “in which a senator tells his colleagues ‘I admit this new bill is too complicated to understand. We'll just have to pass it to find out what it means.’”

The citation amounted to an acknowledgment of Frankfurter as Roberts’s guiding light when it comes to the exercise of judicial restraint. Roberts was saying, Congress did a poor job passing the ACA – but he wasn’t willing to use Congress’s sloppiness to subvert Congress’s intent.

Roberts rejected the legal challenge altogether: “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”

The decision isn’t only a win for judicial restraint. It’s also a win for common sense statutory interpretation, which looks to the purpose of the law, not merely to its text. Justice Antonin Scalia, in dissent, applied his preferred method of textualism.

In typically acerbic and emphatic fashion, he wrote, “Words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is ‘established by the State.’”

But, of course, Scalia is wrong – at least when it comes to the interpretation of the law. The justices’ job isn’t to function as a dictionary. It’s to make the laws make sense. For that, you need to know the purpose of the law. Frankfurter was also an advocate of looking to the law’s purpose. Somewhere, he’s smiling.

Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard.