D.C. Court Decision on Obamacare: Absurd Outcome Means Absurd Decision

Heading toward the Supreme Court?

Heading toward the Supreme Court?

A prescient article by Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution in April, provides the sensible and legally correct answer to the question whether people receiving health insurance from federally run health care “exchanges” under Obamacare (also known as ACA) can receive the same subsidies as enrollees in the fourteen states which run their own exchanges. (This is course not the same Henry Aaron who broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record. But I bet he doesn’t mind being called Hammerin Hank).

Hammerin Hank’s article was buried at the time, but now has great relevance, after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (2-1) that, admittedly flawed, language in an isolated section of the ACA, alas, means that the plain purpose of the Act, to make health insurance affordable to all, is entirely negated. On the same day, another U.S. Circuit Court, by a 3-0 vote, issued an opposite ruling, setting up the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately hear the case.

Aaron’s article reminds us that centuries of western jurisprudence have upheld the notion that judges have an obligation to interpret law in a manner that doesn’t produce absurd outcomes; or render an Act worthless, ineffective, or inoperable. (See “Absurdity and the Limits of Literalism”)

As a 2008 Congressional Research Service (non partisan and authoritative) report on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of statutory law observes, “the one generally recognized exception to the [“plain meaning of the language”] rule is that a plain meaning is rejected if it would produce an “absurd result.”*

Is that plain enough?  I think so,  But nothing the High Court does would surprise me these days.

*See, for example, United States v. Granderson, 511 U.S. 39, 47 n.5 (1994) (dismissing an interpretation said to lead to an absurd result); Dewsnup v. Timm, 502 U.S. 410, 427 (1992) Justice Scalia, dissenting) (“[i]f possible, we should avoid construing the statute in a way that produces such absurd results”); Public Citizen v. Department of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 454 (1989) (“[w]here the literal reading of a statutory term would compel ‘an odd result,’. . . we must search for other evidence of congressional intent to lend the term its proper Scope.”


6 thoughts on “D.C. Court Decision on Obamacare: Absurd Outcome Means Absurd Decision

  1. Harold Nelson

    This may be something of a dilemma for the right wing. Killing the ACA has been the holy grail to them since it was passed. However, It may be too late for that to be politically feasible because of the numbers of working poor who now have insurance through the ACA. Witness the song and dance the famous turtle is doing in KY. The repercussions for the insurance and hospital industries would also be “interesting.”

    So how would this play out assuming that the supreme court decides to allow the absurdity? I can see a protracted struggle negotiating a technical fix in the congress. It might even force CNN to share time with Gaza, the Ukraine, etc.


  2. Irv Lefberg Post author

    Good points Harold. The good people of Kentucky would be upset if they lost the health care being advertised by the turtle, but would be delighted if “Obamacare” was sunk. :).



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