I just returned from this morning’s oral argument in Department of HHS v. Florida, the challenge to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This week the Court is devoting three full days (six hours) of argument to the case, the most in half a century. The case has been a constitutional law professor’s dream because it illustrates the application of so many issues we cover in the course, including standing, the commerce power, the tax and spending powers, and theories of constitutional interpretation. I have had my first year Con Law students read the decisions below and the principal briefs before the Court and we devoted two full days of class to a roleplaying exercise where the students argued the issues.
This morning when I arrived at the Court at 7:30am there was a very lengthy line outside the Court building even for members of the Supreme Court Bar. When I saw the line I figured that I would not have a chance to get a seat in the bar section, but I at least would be able to listen to live audio of the arguments in the Lawyer’s Lounge. However, many people in the bar line were members of the press and the line shrunk quickly when they were ushered into the building. Also the Court wisely decided for today’s session to entertain no admissions for new members of the Supreme Court bar, freeing up extra seats in the bar section. I received ticket #47 and by 8:45am I was seated in the courtroom with other members of the Court’s bar. Sitting next to me was a state legislator from Maine who had flown to D.C. for the argument. She reported that when she arrived at the Court at 5:20am she was the thirteenth person in the bar line and that many of the people in front of her had been paid to wait in line for other bar members.
I was seated directly in front of the press section, which was filled to overflowing by 9:30am. Being a fly on the wall to conversations among the veteran reporters who cover the Court was interesting. One mused that he could create a stampede from the bar section simply by announcing that he was looking for experts to comment on the case. Another vowed dire consequences “if one more public relations person from a fourth-tier law school calls me to insist that I have to talk to some associate professor about this case.” Considerable chatter occurred concerning which prominent officials were in the Court (“Justice said Eric Holder will be here, but I don’t see him.”).
When the Justices took the bench at 10am, Justice Scalia announced the Credit Suisse Securities decision on the running of a statute of limitations in securities litigation. He went into great detail about the case, taking ten full minutes and causing many in the press and bar sections to roll their eyes. Chief Justice Roberts then in three minutes succinctly explained the Court’s Zivotofsky decision, holding that the constitutionality of a statute requiring the State Department to list people born in Jerusalem as having been born in Israel is not a political question.
The argument then got underway. The Court has divided the three days of argument by subject matter. The main event will be tomorrow when the Court focuses on the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the requirement that everyone purchase health insurance. This is the portion of the ACA that was struck down by the 11th Circuit as exceeding Congress’s power under the commerce clause. Today’s argument focused on whether the Anti-Injunction Act, a statute that dates from 1867, barred the Court from hearing challenges to the ACA because of its requires that taxes first be paid before their legality can be challenged in court. The only penalty the ACA provides for failing to purchase health insurance is that an extra payment must be made on one’s income tax return with the payment roughly designed to reflect what the cost of insurance would have been. Because the Solicitor General has taken the position that this payment is not covered by the Anti-Injunction Act, the Court appointed Robert A. Long, Jr. as special counsel to make that argument. Thus, today’s argument was divided into three parts.
Long argued first that the Anti-Injunction Act applied and deprived the Court of jurisdiction to hear the case until after payments for failure to buy insurance became due in 2015. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. then argued that the Anti-Injunction Act did not apply to this case, but that in cases where it did apply it should be considered to be a jurisdictional bar. Gregory G. Katsas, representing the states challenging the constitutionality of the ACA, argued that the penalty was not a tax barred by the Anti-Injunction Act and that the government had properly waived any argument to that effect.
Based on the questions from the Justices, it seems most unlikely that the Court will use the Anti-Injunction Act rationale to postpone for a few years a decision on the constitutionality of the ACA. Several Justices noted that when the constitutionality of the Social Security Act was challenged 75 years ago in Helvering v Davis, the government waived application of the Anti-Injunction Act, something it could not do if the Act were a jurisdictional bar. Solicitor General Verrilli said the Court need not decide the jurisdictional issue if it agreed that Congress did not intend to subject the ACA to the Anti-Injunction Act. Justice Kennedy brought down the house when he replied, “Don’t you want to know the answer anyway?”
Thirteen minutes into the argument all Justices but Justice Thomas had asked questions. Thomas did not ask any questions. He has not asked a question at oral argument for six years, though some have speculated that tomorrow he may do so when the focus is on the constitutionality of the individual mandate. The Justices did not tip their hands today about how they felt concerning this constitutional issue. Justice Alito did chide the Solicitor General for arguing today that the sanction for failing to purchase insurance is not a tax, while arguing tomorrow that it is. In one exchange between Justice Kagan and the Solicitor General, Kagan kept referring to the “penalty” while Verrilli kept answering by referring to the “tax.” When the Chief Justice noted that they were using different terms, Verrilli switched to “tax penalty” as a compromise.
Tomorrow the government is making the argument that the individual mandate is constitutional as an exercise of both the commerce and the taxing powers. The tax power is implicated because the only sanction for violating the mandate is payment of a penalty on one’s income tax. Opponents of the mandate argue that it never would have been adopted by Congress if it had been advertised as a tax. However, there is precedent that even measures not specifically called “taxes” can be upheld under the taxing power in certain circumstances.
The upshot of today’s argument is that the Court is most unlikely to use the Anti-Injunction Act to duck a decision on the merits of the constitutional issues. Thus, tomorrow is the main event (Wednesday’s argument will be devoted to severability and the sleeper issue of whether the Medicaid expansion is unconstitutionally coercive of the states). I will not be attending the argument tomorrow because I have a morning class in Constitutional Law, but my class and I certainly will continue to follow this case closely.