Obamacare decision imposes limits on executive power
A few weeks ago, I accused the sitting U.S. Supreme Court of being nothing short of the Destroyers of Democracy. Why? Because the court based some of its most-important decisions -- Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. FEC in particular -- on politics rather than on legal principles.
Critics of at least one of last week's flurry of epic Supreme Court decisions claim politics once again trumped legal precedent. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders states in a June 29, 2015, column (registration required) that the five justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage bowed to public opinion. Nowhere in the column is there a reference to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (also implied in the Fifth Amendment, according to the court).
Saunders claims the court came to the right decision, but for the wrong reasons. Interpreting Supreme Court decisions, and predicting their long-term impact, are beyond my meager skills and experience. But you can be certain there is rarely anything simple about a ruling by the highest court in the land. Exhibit A (if you will) of this complexity is discussed by BloombergView's Cass R. Sunstein in a June 25, 2015, article.
Sunstein points out that in ruling the Affordable Care Act allows the federal government to implement healthcare exchanges for people in states that don't create their own exchanges, the court cemented its role as the sole arbiter of legislative interpretation. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council that the executive branch held the power to interpret regulations, so long as their interpretation was reasonable.
According to Sunstein, Chief Justice John Roberts has been looking to limit this executive discretion when the regulation entails great "economic and political significance." That is precisely the principle Roberts "entrenched" in his Obamacare decision. Even though the court upheld the Internal Revenue Service's interpretation of the ACA legislative intent, it made it clear that the final word on what Congress intended for any such legislation belongs to the Supreme Court.
This creates an interesting parallel with the seminal case of Marbury v. Madison, which established the principle of judicial review of the constitutionality of laws enacted by Congress. The Marbury decision ultimately denied the court's jurisdiction in the case under the Judiciary Act of 1789, while simultaneously establishing the court's authority. In King v. Burwell, the court sided with the executive interpretation of the ACA statute, but did so in a way that limited the executive's power to interpret legislation.
So you tell me, is the glass half full or half empty?