The most important case to reach the Supreme Court, ostensibly since Roe v. Wade, began with the words, “There is no reason to think Congress exempted the penalty as a tax.”
No acknowledgement of the case’s significance. No grandiose declaration of constitutionality. In essence, it was a thesis statement – and a boring one at that, by many accounts.
But the ensuing hour and a half of argumentation provided a glimpse into both the controversial and technical aspects of the healthcare debate – starting with the question on whether or not the Court should even issue a decision on the matter right now.
There has been much speculation that the nine justices might throw out the case on jurisdictional grounds, involving the Anti-Injunction Act. It’s a contentious election year, and this decision has the power to sway the way the country votes in November. Besides, the Court tends to defer to Congress on matters legislative; they like to exhaust all other options before issuing a ruling on whether or not a law is constitutional.
It’s apparent the Court no longer has much patience with the AIA defense. Eight of the nine justices (Justice Clarence Thomas rarely, if ever, speaks in Court) directed questions challenging the court-appointed lawyer arguing that the Court had to withhold an opinion until the mandate took effect.
That lawyer, Robert Long, began his defense by stating simply that Congress had not differentiated the individual mandate noncompliance penalty from ordinary taxes. He gave three reasons. One, the law states that the penalty “shall be assessed and collected as taxes.” Two, penalties are included as taxes in our tax code. Three, the penalty looks like a tax in the manner it is collected; therefore, it must be one.
Mr. Long had barely completed his three reasons before Justice Antonin Scalia jumped in with the first question, regarding whether the IRS is explicitly collecting the penalty as a tax. From there on, the Justices continued to barrage Mr. Long with questions challenging the technical aspects of the AIA’s jurisdiction.
Although Justice Scalia is known for his courtroom humor, it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor who drew the first laugh from the audience, with a quip about how she and Mr. Long couldn’t come to an agreement on a technical matter, because “You assume the government to be incompetent, while I do not.”
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