In a 2015 dissent to an Obamacare case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously opined that the court had concluded “that this limitation would prevent the rest of [Obamacare] from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law.… We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”
Last week’s retirement announcement from Justice Anthony Kennedy, coupled with news placing Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, high on President Trump’s list to replace Kennedy, has drawn attention back to the legal wrangling over the law. Some observers have claimed that Kavanaugh, in a 2011 opinion written when the D.C. Circuit considered Obamacare’s constitutionality, supported the law’s individual mandate.
As in many other cases, however, the truth contains more nuance than that simple declaration. Even as he avoided a definitive ruling on the merits of the case, Kavanaugh revealed himself as favorably disposed to the mandate. Worst of all, in so doing, he cultivated a theory that ultimately led Chief Justice John Roberts to uphold the mandate.
Extended Discussion of the Anti-Injunction Act
Most of Kavanaugh’s opinion discusses interpretations of statute that hardly qualify as an enlightening discourse of constitutional principles. Whereas his two circuit court colleagues upheld the mandate as a valid exercise of Congress’ power under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Kavanaugh “dissent[ed] as to jurisdiction and [did] not decide the merits.”
Kavanaugh’s dissent arose from his belief that the 1867 Anti-Injunction Act precluded the court from deciding the merits of the individual mandate. The Anti-Injunction Act prevents individuals from challenging the validity of taxes in court until after they have paid them, which if applied to Obamacare’s mandate (which took effect in 2014) meant that a court challenge would not ripen until individuals had paid the mandate penalty on their taxes—i.e., in spring 2015, or nearly four years after the D.C. Circuit ruling.
Kavanaugh spends the better part of 50 pages—longer than the majority opinion justifying the mandate as constitutional—analyzing the Internal Revenue Code, and the Anti-Injunction Act, to support his belief that the mandate qualified as a tax under the act, forestalling any legal or constitutional challenge until after individuals had paid it. He cautions “the reader that some of the following is not for the faint of heart”—a true enough warning, as much of the opinion devolves into tedium that only a tax lawyer could love.
The Supreme Court ultimately disagreed with Kavanaugh’s Anti-Injunction Act analysis. In 2012, Roberts ruled that Obamacare’s individual mandate functioned as a penalty for purposes of the Anti-Injunction Act—meaning the act did not apply, and the court could proceed to decide the merits of the underlying case—even as he concluded that the mandate functioned as a tax for purposes of determining its constitutionality.
While Roberts disagreed with Kavanaugh’s reasoning about applying the Anti-Injunction Act to the Obamacare mandate, such differences over the interpretation of a 150-year-old statute hardly rise to the level of disqualifying for a potential Supreme Court nominee.
A Bit of Judicial Restraint…
Indeed, three-quarters of Kavanaugh’s ruling provides a worthy defense of judicial restraint—judges avoiding decisions on weighty questions wherever possible. He argues that courts should defer to Congress, which enacted the Anti-Injunction Act in the first place:
The jurisdictional status of the Anti-Injunction Act reflects the Constitution’s separation of powers in operation. Under the Constitution, Congress possesses the power to tax and spend, as well as the power of the purse over appropriations of money. Congress zealously guards those prerogatives. Here, Congress has not afforded discretion to the Executive Branch to waive or forfeit the Anti-Injunction Act’s bar with respect to the assessment and collection of taxes. Rather, by making the Anti-Injunction Act jurisdictional, Congress has commanded courts to abide by the Act even when the Executive Branch might not assert it.
He also disregards efforts by the Obama administration, in attempts to provide policy certainty regarding Obamacare, encouraging the courts to decide the merits of the individual mandate before it took effect, rather than invoking the Anti-Injunction Act to bar the suits until 2015:
We must adhere to the statutory constraints on our jurisdiction no matter how much the parties might want us to jump the jurisdictional rails and decide this case now….By waiting, we would respect the bedrock principle of judicial restraint that courts avoid prematurely or unnecessarily deciding constitutional questions.
After all this discussion of judicial restraint, however, Kavanaugh then spends the last quarter of his opinion “jump[ing] the jurisdictional rails” and opining on the “constitutional questions” that he said courts should not “prematurely” decide.
…Followed by Judicial Activism
The last section of Kavanaugh’s opinion explains why he believes the courts should not decide the constitutionality of the individual mandate: “this case could disappear by 2015 because, by then, Congress may fix the alleged constitutional shortcoming and ensure that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate provision fits comfortably within Congress’ Taxing Clause power.”
In Kavanaugh’s view, the mandate could fit “comfortably” within Congress’ constitutional powers. Even as he “do[es] not take a position her on whether the statute as currently written is justifiable,” Kavanaugh concludes that “the only potential Taxing Clause shortcoming in the current individual mandate provision appears to be relatively slight” (emphasis in the original).
Several pages thereafter, Kavanaugh continues to answer a question nobody asked him, giving the legislature instructions on how to remedy the in-his-view minor constitutional infirmity:
This discussion about the potential problem with the Government’s Taxing Clause argument also shows how easily Congress could eliminate any such potential problem. For example, Congress might keep the current statutory language and payment amounts and simply add a provision as basic as: “The taxpayer has a lawful choice either to maintain health insurance or make the payment to the IRS required by Section 5000A(a)-(c).” Or Congress might retain the exactions and payment amounts as they are but eliminate the legal mandate language in Section 5000A, instead providing something to the effect of: “An applicable individual without minimum essential coverage must make a payment to the IRS on his or her tax return in the amounts listed in Section 5000A(c).” Or Congress could adopt the approach from the House-passed bill, which expressly created a tax incentive and plainly satisfied the Taxing Clause.
Any of those options—and others as well—would ensure that this provision operates as a traditional regulatory tax and readily satisfies the Taxing Clause.
Conservatives might argue amongst themselves about which is worse: An unelected judge opining on how a mandate to purchase a product could meet constitutional muster, or that same unelected judge giving Congress instructions on how to ensure it will.
Kavanaugh’s Roadmap to Save Obamacare
Some will note the irony of Kavanaugh’s opinion stating that “no court to reach the merits has accepted the Government’s Taxing Clause argument.” Josh Blackman notes in his book “Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare” that Solicitor General Donald Verilli “advanced this very argument”—that severing the mandate to buy health insurance from the tax for not buying health insurance would make the latter constitutional—“at the Supreme Court.”
The gambit worked. Roberts ultimately relied upon that argument from Verilli by way of Kavanaugh to uphold the mandate as a constitutional exercise of the taxing power. That Kavanaugh, like Roberts, used the last few pages of his opinion to decry the “unprecedented” nature of a mandate upheld via the Commerce Clause power does not mitigate his favorable analysis of a mandate upheld via the Taxing Clause power.
Other analysts with more experience in constitutional and legal jurisprudence (and perhaps less experience in health policy) can opine on other parts of Kavanaugh’s record. But his opinion on Obamacare, while starting out with an admirable nod toward judicial restraint, unfortunately veered in an activist direction that gives this conservative serious pause.