(Story updated at 6:05 p.m. ET.)
The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments in King v. Burwell for March 4, meaning a decision in the landmark case is likely by the end of June.
Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at Drexel University and an expert on the Supreme Court, said she can't think of a time when the court has issued an opinion later than the end of June. In this case, she guesses an opinion might come the last week of June and be one of the last issued.
“Typically in these very big cases, there is a lot of sort of negotiating going on behind the scenes between the justices,” McElroy said.
Also, King v. Burwell is the only case scheduled for oral arguments March 4. So it's possible the court might allow arguments to go beyond the standard one-hour mark, McElroy speculated.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is funding the challenge to the law, also announced Monday that the petitioners in the case filed their opening brief.
The brief calls the case “extraordinarily straightforward.”
The question in King v. Burwell is whether the language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act allows consumers to receive premium subsidies in states that have not established their own exchanges and instead are relying on HealthCare.gov.
One part of the law says the subsidies are available only to Americans who enrolled “through an exchange established by the state,” leading those behind the lawsuit to argue that the subsidies shouldn't be available to those in states without their own exchanges.
But the Obama administration argues that the law's clear intention was to offer subsidies and expand coverage to Americans in every state, and that other sections of the law indicate that subsidies are available to people in states served by the federal exchange. The IRS has been interpreting the law to mean Americans in every state should be eligible for the cash.
If the court rules the subsidies illegal in states without their own exchanges, its likely millions of Americans would no longer be able to afford their insurance. That in turn could lead healthy people to drop their coverage, leaving only the sick on the federal exchange. That could put insurers in a financial bind and the law itself in jeopardy.
Lawyers for the petitioners in the case argued in their brief filed Monday that the IRS should not be allowed to extend subsidies to those who bought coverage on the federal exchange.
“In short, Congress could not have chosen clearer language to express its intent to limit subsidies to state exchanges, and no one has been able to explain why it would have used this language absent such intent,” according to the brief.
They argue that Congress meant the subsidies to be an incentive for states to establish their own exchanges. The brief also argues that it is “implausible” that Congress intended to leave the decision up to the IRS of whether to extend subsidies to Americans in states without their own exchanges.
Proponents of the law have argued that the line in the law seemingly limiting the subsidies to Americans enrolled “through an exchange established by the state” might have been a drafting error. They also argue that under the Chevron doctrine, the court should allow the IRS' interpretation of the law to stand.
In a 1984 case, Chevron USA v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the court ruled that federal agencies must follow the letter of the law where the law is clear, but if a law is ambiguous, then the courts must defer to an agency's reasonable interpretation of the law.
Several lower courts, including the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, have found the law's language ambiguous and applied the Chevron doctrine, saying the IRS' interpretation should stand.
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