During oral arguments of the Burwell v Obamacare case before the Supreme Court, the U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli made the case that the “court should defer to the interpretation of the Internal Revenue Service, which said the tax credits apply nationwide.” When the Obamacare decision was announced, it is clear that SCOTUS did apply deference, which was absolutely the worst possible solution.
The idea of “deference” refers “ to “Chevron deference,” “a doctrine mostly unknown beyond the halls of the Capitol and the corridors of the Supreme Court. It refers to a 1984 decision, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., and it is one of the most widely cited cases in law. Boiled down, it says that when a law is ambiguous, judges should defer to the agency designated to implement it so long as the agency’s decision is reasonable.”
Given the current catastrophic state of the IRS, SCOTUS should have run from this idea as quickly as possible. The IRS has proven overwhelmingly in the last few years that no decision it makes is “reasonable” and therefore cannot be trusted as an unbiased, independent agency capable of carrying out a professional opinion on this or virtually any manner.
Even more unfortunately, not only did SCOTUS apply deference, which allowed the IRS rule to stand, it did so by taking expanding the concept of “Chevron Deference” even further in order to validate its decision. George Will, in a column written just after the Obamacare ruling was handed down, described how the decision now allows the executive branch to apply deference in situations that are not just ambiguous, but also “inconvenient for the smooth operation of something Congress created.” This is not interpreting law — this is legislating.
Therefore, the actions of the IRS — that is, willy-nilly creating rules which expanded the scope of Obamacare beyond its text — were indeed endorsed and given political cover by Roberts and his majority as they applied Chevron Deference. Instead of sending Obamacare back to the legislature for clarification, the judicial branch decided to step in and interpret the law for the sake of alleviating “inconvenience”. But this is wrong. Convenience, ease, and expediency should never be a rationale for the judicial branch to go beyond the scope of deciding whether or not a law is constitutional, as they did here.
The judicial branch, with this decision, seemed to act more in harmony with the legislative and executive one, instead of serving as a check against the others. What’s more, “besides violating the separation of powers, this approach raises serious issues about whether litigants before the courts are receiving the process that is due to them under the Constitution. It would result if its branches behaved as partners in harness rather than as wary, balancing rivals maintaining constitutional equipoise.”
Will summed up the damage Roberts has done, which is likely to have lasting effects in the courts for years to come. Roberts goes “beyond “understanding” the plan; he adopts a legislator’s role in order to rescue the legislature’s plan from the consequences of the legislature’s dubious decisions. By blurring, to the point of erasure, constitutional boundaries, he damages all institutions, not least his court.”
How the Supreme Court uses and applies Chevron Deference in the coming years, in the way they did with this decision, will be especially interesting, given the expanded roles of many government agencies such as the EPA and FCC.