The Supreme Court's Decision on Affordable Care Act


The Supreme Court of the United States handed an important decision yesterday, regarding continuing subsidies for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as ACA). The ACA bill was passed into law in 2010. Yesterday’s lawsuit stemmed from the technicalities related to the way the law was written. In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld another suit questioning the constitutionality of ‘individual mandate’ requiring Americans to carry insurance. In both instances, Mr. Roberts casted the deciding votes.

The consistent leadership traits that President Barack Obama and the Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts provided the context of making sure that the ACA designed to help low and middle income American families is here to stay. After the Supreme Court decision, the President said, “After multiple challenges to this law before the Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act is here to stay. What we’re not going to do is unravel what has now been woven into the fabric of America.”

The President, representing the executive arm of the government, presented this bold social policy reform, in my personal view, comparable only to the reforms within Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives ( such as creating the social security, Tennessee Valley Authority and FDIC). The Chief Justice Roberts, a Republican nomination to the Supreme Court, has consistently sided with the democratic voice of the American people related to the ACA. In this particular case, Chief Justice Roberts has showed notable leadership qualities and has stood for what is right. Justice Roberts chooses to interpret the texts of the law in a larger context.

Highlighting the misrepresented four words ‘established by the state’ from the law, the challengers argued that, outside of the exchanges established by the participating sixteen states, Americans in the rest of the country wouldn’t qualify for federal subsidies. Without these tax subsidies, 6.4 million Americans would lose their insurance. I have been following this development for the last five years. What struck me by Yesterday’s development is the human side of the justices and the leadership traits that the majority displayed.

The crux of the argument was already settled regarding whether the American people wanted the ACA or not. The latest suit was strictly arguing over the omission of a proper clarification, within the 906 page, H.R.3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, presented at the second session of the 111th congress on Jan 5, 2010.

Justice Roberts rightly stated that, “In this instance, the context and structure of the act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase.” According to this piece, Justice Roberts emphasized that the words must be understood as part of a larger statutory plan.

I find this development strikingly meaningful. Regardless of our political affiliation or biased ideologies, in this day and age, when hard fought litigation tend to overshadow the common sense, this ruling presents hope and aspirations for future leaders in any field of work – to do the right thing, by seeing beyond what is technically viable and understanding the entire context.

Leaders need to be aware of the contexts that they lead in. In Robert Denhardt’s book The Dance of Leadership, there was a strong case for the importance of context in courtrooms. Quoting the former attorney general of Oregon Dave Frohnmayer and Mr. Frohnmayer’s experience arguing in the Supreme Court, Dr. Denhardt presented an interesting insight that eighty five percent of cases are decided based on the understanding of the context.

This case of King vs Burwell is a proof that leadership matters, context matters and we need to see beyond technicalities and embrace deeper understanding and empathy.