WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The healthcare law conceived by President Barack Obama and passed by Congress was by no means perfect, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said on Thursday. The law, for instance, had “three separate Section 1563s.”
“The Affordable Care Act contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting,” the country’s top jurist quipped as he announced the court’s ruling from the bench preserving the law.
But the imperfections were not the point, he said.
Simply put, the 60-year-old chief justice said, the law was written to make healthcare insurance widely available, and the disputed tax subsidies at the heart of the case were crucial to keeping the cost of premiums down and enrollment up.
It was the second time in three years that Roberts had authored an opinion rejecting a conservative challenge to the 2010 law known as Obamacare.
If a law was ambiguous, it was the job of justices to provide a fair interpretation, he said, as he read from his majority opinion in the marble-columned chamber before some 300 spectators.
His corporate legal experience before joining the bench might have informed his understanding of insurance markets. But the man who cut his teeth in Washington as a lawyer in the government’s executive branch also voiced understanding of the messy compromises that accompany bills taken up by the legislative branch.
He referred to a cartoon described in 1947 by the late Justice Felix Frankfurter, “in which a senator tells his colleagues, ‘I admit this new bill is too complicated to understand. We’ll just have to pass it to find out what it means.’”
Curtailing the subsidies, Roberts said, would lead to an economic “death spiral,” with premiums rising and the number of people with insurance dropping.
Unlike three years ago, when Roberts was the only conservative joining the four liberal justices on the nine-member bench to uphold the law, fellow conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, 78, a 1988 appointee of Republican President Ronald Reagan, signed on with Roberts.
The vote three years ago was 5-4; this time it was 6-3.
In 2012, Roberts drew the wrath of Kennedy, Republicans and other conservatives. Some right-wing advocates beyond the court deemed the 2005 appointee of Republican President George W. Bush a traitor.
Three years ago Roberts confronted a multi-faceted constitutional challenge and stitched together various rationales to uphold the law. His approach on Thursday was straightforward interpretation of statute.
In the case decided on Thursday, the challengers, financed by the libertarian Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, had argued that tax-credit subsidies should go only to people who bought insurance on marketplace exchanges “established by the state,” as stated in one part of the law.
That reading would dramatically curtail the availability of subsidies because most of the low and moderate income people who qualify live in the nearly three dozen states with exchanges run by the federal government and not the states.
That interpretation also would conflict with the court’s usual approach to ambiguous statutes, Roberts said. “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” he said.
Spectators laughed along with Roberts when he quoted Frankfurter, but Antonin Scalia, a 79-year-old justice appointed by Reagan in 1986, was not amused.
Given a Roberts majority had now twice preserved Obamacare, the law might as well be called “SCOTUScare,” said Scalia, one of the three dissenters, using the six-letter acronym for the Supreme Court of the United States.
Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Howard Goller