Day One of the arguments before the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act are wonky, but probably some of the most critical of the three-day stretch.
In a nutshell, they concern whether or not the parties have the right to sue over taxes not yet levied.
Section 7421 is actually a section within the Anti-Injunction Act that traces its origins to 1867; that law is often referred to as the Tax Anti-Injunction Act to distinguish it from another congressional enactment that is similar. Both have to do with defining the powers of the federal courts. The tax version is a part of Title 26 of the code of federal laws, and Title 26 deals only with tax issues. The section’s most important words are these: “no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person, whether or not such a person is the person against whom such tax was assessed.”
Before the words “no suit,” the section lists 12 exceptions to the ban that follows. None of those exceptions is involved in the health care cases, so they can be omitted from the discussion. Congress could, if it wished, eliminate the section as a potential barrier to the insurance mandate challenges, simply by passing a law to create a new exception just for that purpose; it has not done so yet, so the ban as written remains intact. It is important to note that when the section refers to “any tax” it only means any federal law, not any state law.
The quoted words of Section 7421 serve a basic goal of the federal government. As the Supreme Court put it in a 1984 decision (Bob Jones University v. Simon), “the principal purposes of this language” is “the protection of the government’s need to assess and collect taxes as expeditiously as possible with a minimum of pre-enforcement judicial interference.”
The heart of the question is whether or not a lawsuit can be brought before the tax under the individual mandate has been levied on anyone. If the court finds that this provision applies, then the arguments over the mandate are moot, and the court can move on to the Medicaid expansion in their decision process.
More from SCOTUSblog:
Although this may be the most complex issue, legally, that the Court will be considering next week, and it is the one that has drawn the least public interest, this question is of major importance: it draws the Court to the core issue of whether anyone had a legal right to file a lawsuit to challenge the insurance-purchase mandate before it actually goes into effect (now scheduled for January 1, 2014). If lawsuits turn out to have been barred, the mandate may not be challenged probably until 2015 at the earliest. The answer actually depends upon answers to two separate issues: is the Anti-Injunction Act the kind of law that defines a federal court’s authority – that is, does a court have jurisdiction to decide the case at all — and, if it is jurisdictional, does that bar a court challenge to a specific law written as the insurance mandate is written?
Without question, these three days' arguments are not only deeply rooted in history, but will be historical regardless of the outcome. Audio recordings of the arguments will be released midday, and I'll be writing them up as quickly as I can. Onward.