Roberts’s one question may turn out to be extremely important. The issue in the case is whether the Obama Administration, in implementing the Affordable Care Act, violated the terms of that law. The plaintiffs assert that the A.C.A. only authorizes subsidies for individuals who buy health insurance on the fourteen state-run exchanges, or marketplaces. Under their reading of the law, the eight million or so people in the other thirty-six states who currently buy their insurance from the federal marketplace should be denied their subsidies. Most of the justices’ questions dealt with the issue of how to read the law correctly, but Roberts, in his single substantive question, took a different tack.
Anthony Kennedy had asked about “Chevron deference,” a doctrine of law that describes how much leeway the executive branch should have in interpreting laws. Verrilli, not surprisingly, said that the Chevron doctrine gave the Obama Administration more than adequate permission to read the law to allow subsidies on the federal exchange. “If you’re right about Chevron,” Roberts said, at long last, “that would indicate that a subsequent Administration could change that interpretation?” Perhaps it could, Verrilli conceded.