A panel of the D.C. Circuit ruled today that the IRS is not free to rewrite the ObamaCare statute to extend tax credits from users of state-run health exchanges, as per the law’s language, to users of the federal exchange as well, because the federal government is not a “State.” [Halbig v. Burwell; Ilya Shapiro, Cato] Later today, a panel of the Fourth Circuit ruled that yes, it’s free to do so. [King v. Burwell] Given the instant one-day circuit split and the importance of the issue, further court consideration is inevitable, and the Obama administration has already indicated that it will seek en banc consideration by the full D.C. Circuit, packed with its own recent appointees. More: The work of my Cato colleague Michael Cannon and Case Western lawprof Jonathan Adler helped undergird the suit; Cannon has commentary here and here and Adler here and here.
The Court has ruled that under RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Congress cannot require closely held corporations to provide contraception coverage as part of ObamaCare when there are readily available alternatives to serve the government’s objectives that would not tread on conscience rights. So said a five-Justice majority led by Justice Alito, including a whittle-it-down concurrence by Justice Kennedy emphasizing the narrowness of the ruling. Why narrow?
* “Closely held” is important — private corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are closer to surrogates for the owning family than are publicly traded corporations.
* The available alternatives are important — in many closely related situations it won’t be as easy to devise a workaround that serves the government’s policy objectives, and in those situations the claims of conscience may lose out.
* And the basis of the decision in RFRA, that is to say, statutory rather than constitutional law, is important. Congress is free to tinker with RFRA, Obamacare law, or both if public opinion is dissatisfied with the outcome. Although objectors may later raise First Amendment arguments, today’s decision in no way decides those issues.
Earlier coverage here. Cato’s brief is here, and Ilya Shapiro is out with a statement for Cato (“Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate had to [fail under RFRA] because it didn’t show – couldn’t show – that there’s no other way of achieving its goal without violating religious beliefs.”)
P.S. My colleague Julian Sanchez argues that the outcry against Hobby Lobby had almost nothing to do with whether any actual female employees will gain or lose access to contraception, and was instead was almost entirely a matter of cultural signal-sending.
All sitting Presidents try to press the power of their office into doubtful areas. President Barack Obama has been particularly aggressive about doing so, according to the panelists at a May 21 discussion held at the Cato Institute. Georgetown law professor and Cato fellow Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz noted that the Constitution’s Take Care Clause directs the President to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, and descends directly from centuries of struggle against the “dispensing power” claimed by pre-modern English kings — that is, the power to dispense with enacted legislation entirely where the royal will is better served that way, a claim of power that goes beyond simple prosecutorial discretion or the pardon power.
Rosenkranz pointed to a number of Obama executive actions that are hard to reconcile with the Take Care clause. The text of the Affordable Care Act, for example, states that the employer mandate prescribed by the law was to begin Jan. 1, 2014. “You don’t need a lawyer to interpret this, you need a calendar.” Yet President Obama elected unilaterally to delay the mandate and substitute a later effective date of his own choice. Likewise, the President’s suspension of some immigration regulations overrode the clear letter of U.S. law, aside from any pluses or minuses it may have had as a policy matter.
“President Obama is being the kind of President Nixon wanted to be,” said panelist Jonathan Turley, a well-known legal commentator and law professor at George Washington University: “Many Democrats will rue the day they stood by while the President asserted these kinds of powers.” Panelist Andrew Grossman of Cato said future presidents are likely to follow Obama’s lead and assert their own right to suspend the operation of other laws.
Bonus: At a separate event, Cato welcomed George Mason U. law professor Frank Buckley to talk about his book The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. I offer a question at the beginning of the comment period.
“Obamacare Call Center Faces Unpaid Wages & Overtime Class Action Lawsuit” [BigClassAction.com]
Ilya Shapiro sorts out the issues for SCOTUSblog. Earlier here.
The Cato Institute has submitted an amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases, which test the extent to which the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment restrain the federal government from requiring employers to participate in employee benefit arrangements that violate the conscience of the individuals who own and run the company. More on the other amicus briefs from Rick Garnett at PrawfsBlawg and commenters. Prof. Bainbridge takes issue with a brief signed by a group of law professors on whether a corporate enterprise can be treated as an alter ego for its owners for purposes of imputing to it their rights (“reverse veil piercing”), and has some further thoughts on the legal principle — sometimes ideologically contested, but seldom in a consistent way — of corporate personhood. Related earlier here.
Legislature’s back in session and no citizen’s liberties are safe:
- SB 65 (Benson) would require gas station dealers to maintain operational video cameras and retain footage for 45 days [Maryland Legislative Watch]
- HB 20 (GOP Del. Cluster) would require all public schools to hire cops [Gazette, MLW]
- SB 28 (Frosh) would lower burden of proof for final domestic protective orders from “clear and convincing” to “preponderance of the evidence” [MLW, ABA] One problem with that is that orders already tag family members as presumed abusers in the absence of real evidence, are routinely used as a “tactical leverage device” in divorces, and trip up unwary targets with serious criminal penalties for trying to do things like see their kids;
- Driving while suspected of gun ownership: what unarmed Florida motorist went through at hands of Maryland law enforcement [Tampa Bay Online] 2014 session in Annapolis can hardly be worse for gun rights than 2013, so it stands to reason it’ll be better [Hendershot's]
- State begins very aggressive experiment in hospital cost controls: “I am glad there is an experiment, but I’m also glad I live in Virginia.” [Tyler Cowen]
- Scenes from inside the failed Maryland Obamacare exchange [Baltimore Sun] Lt. Gov.: now’s not the time to audit or investigate the failed launch because that’d just distract us from it [WBAL]
- Corridors run pink as Montgomery County school cafeterias battle scourge of strawberry milk [Brian Griffiths, Baltimore Sun]
- Plus: A left-right alliance on surveillance and privacy in the legislature [my new Cato at Liberty post]
- How did Maryland same-sex marriage advocates win last year against seemingly long odds? [Stephen Richer, Purple Elephant Republicans citing Carrie Evans, Cardozo JLG; thanks to @ToddEberly as well as Carrie and Stephen for kind words]
Again and again, as legal challenges to ObamaCare made their way forward, leading law professors dismissed as frivolous or inconsequential arguments that wound up convincing many or most Justices on the Supreme Court. David Hyman via Stephen Bainbridge:
Almost without exception, law professors dismissed the possibility that PPACA might be unconstitutional — but something went wrong on the way to the courthouse. What explains the epic failure of law professors to accurately predict how Article III judges would handle the case? After considering three possible defenses/justifications, this essay identifies five factors that help explain the erroneous predictions of our nation’s elite law professors, who were badly wrong,
but never in doubt.
Related: NYU Prof. Jonathan Haidt, who has written powerfully about the lack of ideological diversity in academia, has this page of resources on the subject. And don’t forget my book Schools for Misrule.
More: Nick Rosenkranz at Volokh back in April.
Stewart Baker is running a year-end contest to name the most regrettable uses of privacy law over the past year. Among his nominations: the “Agriculture Department, which cited privacy grounds in refusing to name any of the beneficiaries of the notoriously fraud-ridden ‘Pigford‘ settlement”; Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who imposed millions of dollars in fines on private health companies for lacking adequate technical controls on the privacy of health data, “even when there was no evidence that any data had been compromised,” at the same time as her own department was launching healthcare.gov, a data intake site with much more critical privacy and safety flaws; racing mogul Max Mosley, who prevailed on a French court to order Google to de-index scandal coverage of Mosley’s recreational indiscretions; and federal judge Lucy Koh, for finding Gmail’s business model potentially violative of wiretap laws. All the examples above were winners in their categories, save Mosley who trailed behind two others in the category “Worst Use of Privacy Law to Protect Power and Privilege.”
Half of them arise from the White House’s ongoing effort to rewrite the terms of ObamaCare on the fly without actually going back to ask Congress to change the law. [Ilya Shapiro, Forbes]
Incidentally, the Executive Branch’s claim of power to suspend various provisions of the ObamaCare law at its whim stands on quite a different and weaker footing, constitutionally, from the well-established tradition of prosecutorial discretion (or the even more well-established power to pardon individual violators). In requiring the president to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, the Constitution’s Take Care clause necessarily implies that not all aspects of law enforcement can be suspended at executive whim, and discretion is necessarily narrower when it comes to the enforcement of statutes creating general civil schemes of private rights and regulation than it is in the realm of criminal enforcement, which necessarily labors under a scarcity of investigative and correctional resources. English kings like James II long asserted a “dispensing power” to suspend the operation of otherwise applicable laws at the royal will, but civil libertarians fought for centuries (and with much success) to cabin and curtail that power. Zachary Price of Hastings recounts some of this history, as well as contemporary readings of the Take Care clause, in a new article that is getting a lot of attention.
While on the topic: ObamaCare’s corporatism is sacrificing both the rule of law and transparency, argues Mickey Kaus [first, second] The program’s atomistic individualism [David Boaz] And Megan McArdle on the Administration’s “willingness to take large risks with the program’s stability” by altering rules.