Category Archives: US Law

A Scot on SCOTUS…

…or what may or may not happen and what happens when and if it does.

Antonin Scalia, the most senior Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), died this week aged 79. This means two important things:

  1. There is now a seat on the most important Judicial Bench in the world; and
  2. The Judiciary is now a live issue in the US Presidential Election.

The second of these is political – and will depend (theoretically) on the candidates legislative and legal outlooks. But the first raises issues of Constitutional Procedure and legal operation. It also comes the closest America gets to a constitutional convention which may or may not exist, depending on how convenient it’s existence is to the Majority in the Senate.

The Supreme Court and the President

The 3 branches of the US Federal Government (The Legislature; The Executive; and the Judiciary) are established in Article 1, 2 & 3 of the US Constitution respectively. However, despite the US’s love of ‘Separation of Powers’, the President and Congress play a pivotal role in the selection of new Supreme Court Justices.

In the UK, while the Queen appoints new Judges at the Prime (or First) Minister’s recommendation, this is more stuffy Constitutional rules than genuine political process. The reality is that independent judicial appointment committees do the vetting and recommendation. This ensures – as much as it can be – that judges are independent and impartial.
In the US however, the process is explicitly political, with the President and Congress both having key, and invariably politicised, roles to play.

When a spot on the bench opens up, the first step is that the President nominates a person to the Supreme Court. This is his right under Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 the US Constitution which states (in potted terms):

[The President]…shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint …Judges of the Supreme Court…

This is usually a high-ranking judge on one of the Courts of Appeal, or other experienced judicial official or legal academic.

While this clause in the Constitution is the only legal rule regarding the President’s power to nominate SCOTUS judges, there is a more flexible political rule in play, the ‘Thurmond Rule’. This stems from the Civil rights says when Senator Thurmond (a Southern segregationist) mounted a campaign to block President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (who signed the Civil Rights Act) US Supreme Court nomination as pay-back. He defined this rule as meaning that no life-time judicial appointments should take place in the latter part of an election year.
This is this that has caused some excitement regarding the appointment of Scalia’s successor. 2016 being an election year, the Republican Majority have attempted to invoke this ‘rule’ (which has no legal standing) to argue Obama should not nominate a successor as the election process is underway. However, while the election will happen on the 10th November 2016 – the winner won’t become the 45th President until January 2017, and with confirmation processes lasting around 2-3 months, this means there could be vacancy on the US’s most important court for over a year! The significance of this is discussed below, but it could well be a political reality, though not a legal requirement.

The Supreme Court and The Senate

Should Obama nominate a candidate, they then face the Senate Judiciary Committee. After (what is almost always) a lengthy testimony, usually spanning days, the committee then vote on whether to recommend the nominee to the Senate or not. A rejection here is not a de jure end to the nomination, but de facto is not a good sign for success, so may lead to a withdrawal and starting the process again.

What really matters is the vote before the Senate. Out of respect for the prestige of the position, a roll call vote is always called. Each Senator states whether they support or oppose the nominee. Theoretically, this only requires 51 votes (a simple majority) and the job is done.
However, especially in these partisan times, the danger is the filibuster. It is possible that, if the opposition is strong enough, the opponents could try and talk out the clock on the nomination process and avoid a vote altogether. Since 2013, most filibusters can be ended by 51 Senators voting to bring it to an end (a “cloture vote”). However, appointments to the Supreme Court are one of the few exceptions, and requires a three-fifths super-majority (60 Senators) to vote in favour.
On the practical level, there are currently 54 Republican Senators and only 46 Democratic-bloc (44 Dems and 2 Dem-voting Independents), meaning that it is virtually impossible for a filibuster to be blocked if it was deployed. This would have political ramifications, as all Congressional actions do, but would be legally doable.

The Supreme Court in the meantime

In the end, if a nomination isn’t made until the next President is sworn in; or the nominee withdraws after the Senate Judiciary Committee; or the Senate rejects him; or his nomination is filibustered out and doesn’t even reach a vote, then there will remain only 8 Justices hearing cases on the Supreme Court – and it’s a key time in US Jurisprudence.

Upcoming cases include cases on voting rights, Union rights and (the most divisive of American topics) abortion. While Scalia was on the court, these cases would be decided and would, most likely, be decided in the conservatives’ favour.
A funny aspect of SCOTUS is, because of the political nature of appointments, is the court is extremely partisan . In most cases, you can predict with 90% certainty that 4 justices will form a liberal bloc (Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotamyor and Kagan) and 4 a conservative one (Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Chief Justice Roberts) with Anthony Kennedy being the swing-vote.
Now Scalia’s seat is vacant, this becomes a 4-3 default, with a swing or 4-4. {1}

If there’s still a majority on the court then, all is well. There is nothing that stops SCOTUS hearing and deciding upon cases with only 8 justices. It is a 4-4 decision which may prove more troubling. There are three consequences to a tie on the bench:

  1. The decision of the court from which the case was heard is upheld.
  2. No precedent is set from the Court.
  3. The same matter may not be re-appealed to the Supreme Court.

In Common Law countries (such as the US), this could lead to legislative-confusion. A No precedent set in key cases, which arise form a particular set of circumstances and haven’t had Supreme Court consideration for years (such as abortion) and it could be some time before they reach the court again. Even if the court agree the matter can be “re-argued”, it can still take months and years before a judgement is rendered.  A no-score could delay the development of much-needed jurisprudence in contentious and vital areas of law.

The ratio

As Toby Zeigler discovered in Season 1 of the West Wing, getting a judge onto the Supreme Court isn’t an easy task. It has multiple steps, numerous obstacles and many pitfalls, which can be terminal to a Presidential legacy…especially one nearing it’s end.

It’s clear that the process of replacing Justice Scalia requires the legal processes, which are clearly defined in the Constitution and show Obama can (and it appears will) nominate a successor, to brush up against the political realities (A Republican Senate, a hung Court, and ongoing Primary election and potentially one of the most polarizing Presidential elections the US has faced in recent times). What will happen is hard to be sure of, but Obama can play it smart, and get either a liberal on the bench, or Republicans to block appointments out of spite.

Either way Scalia, a constitutional textualist who stuck by the words (not the spirit or customs) of the Constitution, would probably agree – Obama can (and arguably must) nominate the (potential) 113th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

An addendum:
There is (of course) another way Obama could appoint a Jsutice to SCOTUS. He could – if he wanted to have fun – wait until the Congress was out of session and just appoint his next Justice. They can only serve until the end of the next session, but it could help solve part of the problem. This is impractical, however, as he would have to wait until around December (after the 2016 Elections – which are looking good for the Democrats so far) and his appointee would have a very limited effect on the actual decisions of the court.
For completeness though, I felt I should add this in.


{1} It’s also worth noting that in any cases Scalia heard and voted on, but whose judgements have not yet been handed down, his vote is annulled – potentially creating retrospective ties.


ObamaCare Forever (maybe)…

Full Opinion and Dissent

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) today handed down their decision in King v Burwell 576 US (2015), that they heard earlier this year. It was the last major challenge to the Affordable Care Act (or ‘ObamaCare’) coming through the court system, and the Justices voted 6-3 to uphold the Act as it was currently in force. And, the decision came down to what the definition of “state” is.

Obamacare didn’t create an US Version of the NHS, but it did make important changes to the American healthcare system. The Act provided that “each State shall…establish an American Health Benefit Exchange” [s.18031] but, they could opt-out of creating a State Exchange, in which case the Federal government “shall…establish and operate such Exchange within the State. [s.18041]”
These exchanges couldn’t turn people away based on pre-existing conditions, but in return everyone in America had to get insurance. This, appears unfairly harsh for the poorest, but the AFA had in it a compensatory mechanism. The poorest people buying Insurance from Government ‘Exchanges’ could get subsidies to help with the cost of healthcare.
It’s important to grasp just how intertwined these three things are – if you remove one strand (either the guaranteed acceptance, compulsory purchase and supported subsidy) then the whole system falls. If people can be knocked back, they can’t buy any healthcare. If people don’t have to have health coverage, they will only buy insurance when they need it, so they system becomes underfunded. And if you remove subsides for the worst-off, they can’t afford insurance, and so they are pushed into poverty to comply with the law.
It is this provision of subsidy which gave rise to the latest case

The AFA states that the subsidies are available to US Citizens who are enrolled in Health Insurance schemes through “an Exchange established by the State…” The question in this case was whether people who enrolled in their Health Insurance through an exchange run by the Federal Government (because the State didn’t create their own) were eligible for the subsidies too. It was, essentially, a question of statutory interpretation.

The SCOTUS Dissenters (Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito) accepted the argument that the law was written the way it was deliberately, and that the clause must be examined literally. To quote the introduction of Scalia’s (rather forceful) dissent:

The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says “Exchange established by the State” it means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.” That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so. [Page 1; Dissent]

This is exactly what was expected from Justice Scalia. Notwithstanding his being a conservative Justice on the court, he is an ardent adherent to literal interpretation of the Constitution and the law, seeking to look squarely at the words on the page. He gives a sucinct insight to his thought processes on page 2 of his dissent:

In order to receive any money under §36B, an individual must enroll in an insurance plan through an “Exchange established by the State.” The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not a State. So an Exchange established by the Secretary is not an Exchange established by the State—which means people who buy health insurance through such an Exchange get no money under §36B. [Page 2; Dissent]

This, it seems, is the clearest way to deal with the problem. If the law says something, we should give effect to that thing, even if they meant something else. Scalia spends 21 pages justifying this view.¹ Yet, despite these efforts, the majority of the court disagreed.

Instead, the majority argued that, in order to properly understand the law, you had to look beyond the immediate definition of the words. Justice Roberts, delivering the Opinion of the Court, made thrtwoee arguments that the phrase “established by the State” was at least ambiguous. The first was that, even if we were to take a literal approach to the Act, it was clear that there was not meant to be any difference between State-run and Federal-run exchanges. He suggests that when States don’t create an exchange, the Federal must “establish and operate such Exchange” (emphasis added). But saying “such exchange”, he argues that there is no difference between the two kinds of exchange – that Federal Government is merely doing the State’s function. [Page 10; Opinion]
Further, he examines the way the various sections of the Act interact with each other. The Act defines  “Exchange” to mean “an…Exchange established under section 18031″, which means that s.18041 (which establishes the Federal Government’s role in the whole affair), would actually mean that the Federal Government must “establish and operate such an Exchange established under section 18031”.
And, again, by using the words “such Exchange,” the Act indicates that State and Federal Exchanges should be the same. But, as I noted  at the outset, the tax credit subsidy is fundamental to the entire Act. So if tax credits were available only on state-run exchanges, it would go against the fundamental principles of the Act. [Page 12/13; Opinion] This is a far more purposive approach than Scalia’s dissent.
So why, then, did the Act include the phrase “established by the State” in s.18031 if it was so redundant? Why cause raise these questions in the first place? Roberts states that the Act “…contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting.” due the the way it passed through Congress. The Fact the Act was so contentious, required a great deal of compromise and had many, many redrafts led to an imperfect Act which was laden with small and unhelpful inconsistencies. [Page 14; Opinion]

So if the phrase “established by the State” is ambiguous, what should it be taken to mean? Should it have the smaller meaning to be literally “States”, or is there justification for a wider meaning? Roberts argues there is a justification – and it involves looking at the bigger picture. He accepts the argument that it is wrong to view the section in isolation, and it would be just as unhelpful to look at it simply within the context of the subsidising Tax credits, but instead, it must be examined within the entire Act. He states:

While the meaning of the phrase “an Exchange established by the State under [42 U. S. C. §18031]” may seem plain “when viewed in isolation,” such a reading turns out to be “untenable in light of [the statute] as a whole.” {Department of Revenue of Ore. v. ACF Industries, Inc., 510 U. S. 332, 343 (1994).} In this instance, the context and structure of the Act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase. [Page 20; Opinion]

A contextual approach is plain here, even moreso in the concluding statements in Roberts’ Opinion, where it is clear he had the aims of the Act at heart when seeking to decipher the ambiguous wording:

Th[e] credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.

and later:

Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter. Section 36B can fairly be read consistent with what we see as Congress’s plan, and that is the reading we adopt. The judgment of the United States Court of [both Page 21; Opinion]


Truth be told, I do harbour some sympathy for Justice Scalia’s literal approach. The phrase “established by the State” does seem to carry a clear and unambiguous meaning – but this only applies when it is looked at in that section alone. When viewed, not as a law of itself, but merely one provision in a series of many interlocking, interacting provisions which make up an Act, this clarity fades away. Further, when considering the legislative purpose of the Act which was passed (however imperfect and poorly drafted), it is clear there was intended to be no difference between State-run and Federal-run Health exchanges. Given the fundamental nature of the provision being debated, it would need require an explicit and clear instruction to create one, which the section in question certainly is not.

What will be interesting going forward  will be to see, now that the last Judicial challenge to the Affordable Care Act has been rejected, is whether those States who refused to open their own exchanges, will now do so. So close to an election, it is unlikely that the hard-line Republicans will change their position – but for the more moderate Congressmen and Governors, the growing acceptance (dare I say appeal?) of Obamacare, coupled with its growing permanency, may lead them to think again.

¹ You can read the entirety of Scalia’s dissent if you want, but here are some of my personal highlights:
 – The “most natural sense” of the phrase “Exchange established by the State” is an Exchange established by a State.
 – The Court’s next bit of interpretive jiggery-pokery involves…
 – We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.