Interpreting the ACA in Halbig v. Burwell

July 22

Judge Griffith’s opinion in Halbig v. Burwell is a fairly straightforward exercise in statutory interpretation.  Here’s a passage outlining the court’s approach.

On the merits, this case requires us to determine whether the ACA permits the IRS to provide tax credits for insurance purchased through federal Exchanges. To make this determination, we begin by asking “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue,” for if it has, we must give effect to its unambiguously expressed intent. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984). The text of section 36B is only the starting point of this analysis. That provision is but one piece of a vast, complex statutory scheme, and we must consider it both on its own and in relation to the ACA’s interconnected provisions and overall structure so as to interpret the Act, if possible, “as a symmetrical and coherent scheme.” See FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U.S. 120, 133 (2000) (internal quotation marks omitted); Wolf Run Mining Co. v. Fed. Mine Safety & Health Review Comm’n, 659 F.3d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

Although both appellants and the government argue that the ACA, read in its totality, evinces clear congressional intent, they dispute what that intent actually is. Appellants argue that if taxpayers can receive credits only for plans enrolled in “through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA],” then the IRS clearly cannot give credits to taxpayers who purchased insurance on an Exchange established by the federal government. After all, the federal government is not a “State,” see 42 U.S.C. § 18024(d) (defining “State” to “mean[] each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia”), and its authority to establish Exchanges appears in section 1321 rather than section 1311, see id. § 18041(c)(1). The government counters that appellants take a blinkered view of the ACA and that sections 1311 and 1321 of the Act establish complete equivalence between state and federal Exchanges, such that when the federal government establishes an Exchange, it does so standing in the state’s shoes. Furthermore, the government argues, whereas appellants’ construction of section 36B renders other provisions of the ACA absurd, its own view brings coherence to the statute and better promotes the purpose of the Act.

We conclude that appellants have the better of the argument: a federal Exchange is not an “Exchange established by the State,” and section 36B does not authorize the IRS to provide tax credits for insurance purchased on federal Exchanges. We reach this conclusion by the following path: First, we examine section 36B in light of sections 1311 and 1321, which authorize the establishment of state and federal Exchanges, respectively, and conclude that section 36B plainly distinguishes Exchanges established by states from those established by the federal government. We then consider the government’s arguments that this construction generates absurd results but find that it does not render other provisions of the ACA unworkable, let alone so unreasonable as to justify disregarding section 36B’s plain meaning. Finally, turning to the ACA’s purpose and legislative history, we find that the government again comes up short in its efforts to overcome the statutory text. Its appeals to the ACA’s broad aims do not demonstrate that Congress 16 manifestly meant something other than what section 36B says.

It’s also worth quoting Judge Griffith’s conclusion:

We reach this conclusion, frankly, with reluctance. At least until states that wish to can set up Exchanges, our ruling will likely have significant consequences both for the millions of individuals receiving tax credits through federal Exchanges and for health insurance markets more broadly. But, high as those stakes are, the principle of legislative supremacy that guides us is higher still. Within constitutional limits, Congress is supreme in matters of policy, and the consequence of that supremacy is that our duty when interpreting a statute is to ascertain the meaning of the words of the statute duly enacted through the formal legislative process. This limited role serves democratic interests by ensuring that policy is made by elected, politically accountable representatives, not by appointed, life-tenured judges.

Thus, although our decision has major consequences, our role is quite limited: deciding whether the IRS Rule is a permissible reading of the ACA. Having concluded it is not, we reverse the district court and remand with instructions to grant summary judgment to appellants and vacate the IRS Rule.

Here’s my earlier post on today’s Halbig decision.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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Jonathan H. Adler · July 22