Beginning today the Supreme Court is hearing three days of arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The first issue is whether the Court can even consider the law’s constitutionality now–a legalistic argument that in the words of a lawyer challenging the law is “a kind of practical joke that the court is playing on the public.” The 1867 Anti-Injunction Act requires that a tax can only be challenged after it has been paid. The ACA’s penalty–or is it a tax?–for failing to obtain health insurance does not go into effect until 2014 and would not be payable until federal tax returns are filed in 2015, which could mean the challenge must wait. It’s an argument only a lawyer could love, with the twist as to whether the payment imposed for failure to obtain health insurance is a tax. As the NYTimes explains:
In the health care law, Congress called the required payment a penalty rather than a tax. But the penalty is contained in the Internal Revenue Code, and the health care law says it is to be “assessed and collected in the same manner” as a tax.
Mr. Verrilli, representing the Obama administration, walks a fine line. He has told the court that the administration wants a prompt ruling on the health care law and that the 1867 law should not stand in the way. Yet the administration does not want to damage its ability to rely on the 1867 law in other cases.
There are other complications. Mr. Verrilli’s argument that the penalty is not a tax for purposes of the 1867 law is in potential tension with one he will make on Tuesday, that the mandate was authorized not only by Congress’s power under the commerce clause but also by its power to levy taxes.
Mr. Verrilli argues that the name that Congress gave the payment required for violating the mandate in the health care law — a penalty, not a tax — matters for purposes of the 1867 law but is irrelevant in connection with the constitutional taxing power, where “it is the practical operation of the provision, not its label, that controls.” (emphasis additional)
As I said, it’s an argument only a lawyer could love.