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A Moment of Silence for Obamacare

Prayers, depression, and Latin phrases. Obamacare looks to have had another very bad day.

U.S. Supreme Court members pose for photographs in the Supreme Court building.
The Supreme Court heard three days of oral argument on the Affordable Care Act

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Read all of Slate’s coverage about the Affordable Care Act.

It bears pointing out that for all of the six-plus hours of Supreme Court oral argument on the Affordable Care Act, the titans of the legal world—congressmen, appellate litigators, and heads of major national advocacy groups—were forced to surrender their cellphones, newspapers, and personal assistants in order to sit in perfect silence in the Supreme Court chambers. If you were to strip them of the sober gray suits and swap in a bowl of lentils, the last three days could well represent the legal world’s highest powered silent meditation retreat. Some of these folks haven’t been quiet for two consecutive waking hours since the 1960s.

The justices are anything but quiet, and as the two arguments roll on—90 minutes this morning on whether the whole act must fall if the individual mandate falls and almost 90 minutes this afternoon on the constitutionality of the health care law’s Medicaid expansion—the justices start to become almost punchy with all the melodrama. At one point during the morning session, Justice Antonin Scalia, reading from an opinion in a different case, lapses into Latin. Later Justice Stephen Breyer attempts to order the parties into a settlement conference to determine which provisions of the health care law should be allowed to survive. Justices Scalia and Elena Kagan bicker quietly over how much work their respective clerks will need to do in order to sever the mandate; and super-lawyer Paul Clement, arguing on behalf of the 26 states that want the court to strike down the law in its entirety, suggests that the same U.S. Congress that can’t confirm a magistrate judge can vote to reauthorize the surviving bill and “in a couple of days, it won't be a big deal.”

In the afternoon session, Justice Scalia goes on a long, illuminating discursion about what he would do if forced to choose between his own life and that of his wife. Justice Breyer makes an impassioned plea for the infinite virtues of administrative law. And Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, offered 15 extra minutes by Chief Justice John Roberts to finish his argument defending the Medicaid expansion, snorts, “Lucky me.”


In closing the same argument, Verrilli offers what I can only describe as a final day’s prayer to the nine justices to preserve the health care bill because, as he puts it, with guaranteed health care, millions of Americans “will be unshackled from the disabilities that those diseases put on them and have the opportunity to enjoy the blessings of liberty.” Then, with a gentle imprecation that the court recognize that Congress did in fact pass a bill, he says, “Maybe they were right, maybe they weren't, but this is something about which the people of the United States can deliberate and they can vote, and if they think it needs to be changed, they can change it.”

In one sense, and in light of the openly prayerful protests outside the court all week, it may not be a surprise that the three days of argument close with something like an entreaty to a higher power. In another sense, it reveals a lot about where the Obama administration now finds itself.

It’s not a good day for the Affordable Care Act. This morning’s argument requires the justices to start from the assumption that the court will strike down the individual mandate (the issue argued exhaustively yesterday) and asks them to pick over the carcass, to determine what, if anything, survives. There is a strong legal presumption that the court should save (or sever) the constitutional bits of a bill, even if it strikes down other parts. But as the day wears on and the argument winds down, this project of hacking and slicing seems more and more impossible—and it has depressed and terrified virtually everyone.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg asks Paul Clement: “Why should we say it’s a choice between a wrecking operation, which is what you are requesting, or a salvage job. And the more conservative approach would be salvage rather than throwing out everything.” Scalia jokingly suggests that it would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment to force the justices “to go through these 2,700 pages.” And Justice Anthony Kennedy suggests that while the legal presumption is that judicial modesty requires the court to avoid redrafting an entire piece of legislation, maybe the truly humble thing would be for the justices to strike the whole thing down. “When you say judicial restraint,” he tells Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler, “you are echoing the earlier premise that it increases the judicial power if the judiciary strikes down other provisions of the act. I suggest to you it might be quite the opposite. We would be exercising the judicial power if one provision was stricken and the others remained to impose a risk on insurance companies that Congress had never intended. By reason of this court, we would have a new regime that Congress did not provide for, did not consider. That, it seems to me, can be argued at least to be a more extreme exercise of judicial power than striking the whole.”

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Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.