The opening day of the Supreme Court’s hearings on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act went pretty much as expected, with 90 minutes spent arguing semantics; specifically, whether the tax penalty imposed by I.R.C. § 5000A on individuals who fail to procure health insurance is more “tax” than “penalty.”
As a reminder, today’s debate could have ended the highly anticipated hearing on the constitutionality of the individual insurance mandate before it began. If the I.R.C. § 5000A penalty was found to be a “tax,” then the Supreme Court would be barred from ruling on the constitutionality of the insurance requirement by the Anti-Injunction Act — a 145-year old law — until after the tax has been imposed and collected — 2015 at the earliest. If the penalty is truly a “penalty,” however, then the Court can move forward with the argument everyone is longing to hear and determine the fate of Obamacare.
Well, we’ve perused the transcript from today, and while this is nothing more than our opinion, it appears that the majority of justices are in favor of settling the constitutionality debate sooner rather than later. If you’re scoring at home — and if you are, your loneliness saddens me — it would appear from the transcript that Justices Ginsburg, Scalia, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor are in favor of addressing whether Obamacare is constitutional now, while Justices Roberts and Alito would prefer to apply the Anti-Injunction Act and table any constitutionality discussion until 2015. It should be noted that it doesn’t appear that politics were the overriding motivation for any of the justice’s positions, as both conservative (Scalia) and liberal (Kagan) seemed to agree that the Anti-Injunction Act did not apply to I.R.C. § 5000A.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the day was the unenviable position in which the government’s attorney -U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli — found himself. Today, Verrilli vehemently argued that the I.R.C. § 5000A charge was not a tax but a penalty, and thus the Supreme Court was not prohibited from ruling on the provision’s constitutionality prior to the date the tax is collected. Verilli’s argument was made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone in attendance was keenly aware that tomorrow, when justifying the insurance mandate as constitutional, Verrilli would be back in the very same court room arguing that the I.R.C. § 5000A charge is in fact a tax, and is imposed as part of Congress’s taxing authority. Verrilli articulated his dueling positions thusly:
Congress has authority under the taxing power to enact a measure not labeled as a tax, and it did so when it put section 5000A into the Internal Revenue Code. But for purposes of the Anti-Injunction Act, the precise language Congress used [calling it a penalty, rather than a tax] is determinative.
Verrilli wasn’t the only one in a tough spot on Monday. While the various states challenging the law are chomping at the bit to challenge the constitutionality of the insurance mandate, because both sides would prefer to determine the fate of Obamacare soon, no one was jumping at the chance to argue that the I.R.C. § 5000A tax penalty is in fact a tax, and thus subject to the Anti-Injunction Act. So to facilitate debate, the Supreme Court brought in their own attorney to do so, Robert Long.
Mr. Long — likely longing for his care-free days as a member of the popular rap group Black Sheep[i] — was stuck spending 30 minutes trying to convince some of the brightest people on the planet of something they appeared to have already decided they wouldn’t be convinced of. To be fair, the justices went easy on him., but there can’t be anything fun about getting hired to engage in an argument you know you can’t win.
Up today is the main event: the discussion of whether Congress has overstepped its taxing authority in requiring all American’s to obtain health insurance or suffer a tax…penalty…whatever. We’ll let you know how it goes.
[i] Not verified. May be an entirely different Mr. Long.