When it comes to severability determinations–especially in the absence of a severability clause–the output of any hypothetical legislative intent test asking what Congress would have preferred is purely fictive. The doctrinal formula that generates it is a verbal shell with its meat scraped out and its insides filled with the fluid of judicial discretion. This failure of existing doctrine to provide an intelligible legal guidance is one reason to stop using it.
An even more fundamental reason for the Supreme Court to keep its hands off this destructive doctrinal tool is rooted in the separation of powers. Simply put, the doctrine calls on judges to act, consciously, like legislators.
The non-judicial nature of an inseverability holding came through clearly at oral argument in the healthcare litigation, although the Justices did not appreciate it at the time. Consider the following portion of the oral arguments, in which Edwin Kneedler of the DOJ presses the claim that the Supreme Court lacks authority to consider the continued enforceability of statutory provisions that the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge:
MR. KNEEDLER: Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: There should be no occasion for the Court in this case to consider issues of severability, because as we argue, the — the minimum coverage provision is fully consistent with Article I of the Constitution. But if the Court were to conclude otherwise, it should reject Petitioners’ sweeping proposition that the entire Act must fall if this one provision is held unconstitutional. As an initial matter, we believe the Court should not even consider that question. The vast majority of the provisions of this Act do not even apply to the Petitioners, but instead apply to millions of citizens and businesses who are not before the Court -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: How does your proposal actually work? Your idea is that, well, they can take care of it themselves later. I mean, do you contemplate them bringing litigation and saying — I guess the insurers would be the most obvious ones - without — without the mandate, the whole thing falls apart, and we’re going to bear a greater cost, and so the rest of the law should be struck down. And that’s a whole other line of litigation?
MR. KNEEDLER: Well, I — I think the continuing validity of any particular provision would arise in litigation that would otherwise arise under that provision by parties who are actually -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: But what cause of action is it? I’ve never heard of a severability cause of action.
MR. KNEEDLER: Well, in the first place, I don’t — the point isn’t that there has to be an affirmative cause of action to decide this. You could — for example, to use the Medicare reimbursement issue is one of the things that this Act does is change Medicare reimbursement rates. Well, the place where someone adjudicates the validity of Medicare reimbursement rates is through the special statutory review procedure for that. And the same thing is true of the Anti-Injunction Act -
JUSTICE SCALIA: Mr. Kneedler, there are some provisions which nobody would have standing to challenge. If the provision is simply an expenditure of Federal money, it doesn’t hurt anybody except the taxpayer, but the taxpayer doesn’t have standing. That — that just continues. Even though it is — it should — it is so closely allied to what’s been struck down that it ought to go as well. But nonetheless, that has to continue because there’s nobody in the world that can challenge it. Can that possibly be the law?
MR. KNEEDLER: I think that proves our point, Justice Scalia. This Court has repeatedly said that just because there’s — no one may have standing to challenge — and particularly like tax credits or taxes which are challenged only after going through the Anti-Injunction Act, just because no one has standing doesn’t mean that someone must. * * *
JUSTICE SCALIA: But those are provisions that have been legitimately enacted. The whole issue here is whether these related provisions have been legitimately enacted, or whether they are so closely allied to one that has been held to be unconstitutional that they also have not been legitimately enacted. You can’t compare that to — to cases dealing with a statute that nobody denies is constitutional.
MR. KNEEDLER: This case is directly parallel to the Printz case, in our view. In that case, the Court struck down several provisions of the Brady Act, but went on to say it had no business addressing the severability of other provisions that did not apply to the people before [the Court].
The questions posed by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia here can be distilled to two:
(1) If the Court doesn’t address severability in this case, won’t that leave a mess that the federal judiciary might not be able to be sort out in further litigation?
(2) Should the federal judiciary permit provisions in the statute that nobody can challenge in court to stay in effect as law even though they are “closely allied to one that has been held to be unconstitutional”?
The correct answers to these two questions are Yes and Yes.
Yes, it would create a mess for the Supreme Court to hold the so-called individual mandate unconstitutional without addressing the continued enforceability of other PPACA provisions. But that mess is not the federal judiciary’s problem except to the extent that the enforceability of those other PPACA provisions can be challenged in a case or controversy by someone that they injure in a judicially cognizable way. True, there is no “severability cause of action.” But a regulated entity can, in some circumstances, seek a declaratory judgment and injunction on the ground that a federal statute purportedly applicable to it does not have the force of law. If it were a valid legal argument to say that a statutory provision, itself perfectly constitutional, should not be enforceable because Congress would not have enacted it in the absence of another statutory provision that is unconstitutional, then someone can raise that argument in an appropriate pre-enforcement claim for declaratory and injunctive relief. Under current severability doctrine, that could be a valid legal argument. It ought not to be, because the fact Congress would not have enacted the provision should not be allowed to undo the fact that Congress did pass the provision. But whether this is a valid legal argument and whether it ought to be are two different questions.
Yes, the federal judiciary should leave alone statutory provisions that cause no legally cognizable injury to the parties properly before a federal court in a case or controversy. The doctrines that define the case or controversy requirement set the boundaries of the judicial domain. Anything outside those boundaries is none of the federal courts’ business.
As Justice Scalia recognized in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court sometimes adopts a “Mr. Fix-it Mentality” in which the Court “seems to view it as its mission to “Make Everything Come Out Right, rather than merely to decree the consequences, as far as individual rights are concerned, of the other two branches’s actions and omissions.” The oral arguments over the severability of the so-called individual mandate reveal a Court tempted to play this role.