Erin Morrow Hawley has written a fascinating short piece entitled “The Jurisdictional Question in Hobby Lobby.” Hawley’s basic claim is that all nine Justices in Hobby Lobby made “a serious mistake” in failing to address, much less mention, a jurisdictional problem. This incident calls to mind the Court’s controversial rule against ascribing precedential force to implicit jurisdictional findings.
Here’s Hawley’s argument in a nutshell. Under the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA), federal courts lack jurisdiction to hear challenges to taxes unless the challenger has already paid the tax. In the challenge to the Affordable Care Act a couple years ago, the Court said that, despite the AIA, it did have jurisdiction to hear a challenge to the Act’s mandate. Why? Because the Act expressly called the mandate a “penalty,” not a “tax.” Hawley argues that, under the reasoning of the healthcare case, the law at issue in Hobby Lobby should have been deemed a tax for AIA purposes. Why? Because this time Congress did call the provision at issue a “tax.” Therefore, AIA’s jurisdictional rule applied, and the Hobby Lobby challengers should have had to pay the tax before filing suit. Yet not a single Justice in Hobby Lobby raised this arguably fatal jurisdictional problem.
How could this have happened? Hawley outlines possibilities that could be placed into three categories. First, the Court might have had a secret theory for why the AIA posed no jurisdictional bar. Second, the Court might have just missed the issue. Finally, the Justices might have had long-term strategic reasons to sweep the problem under the rug.
These three types of explanation aren’t mutually exclusive, and a combination of them may provide the best guess for what happened. When Hobby Lobby reached the Court, the AIA issue wasn’t front and center, as it had been in the healthcare case. Instead, the Government—which is normally vigorous in raising jurisdictional points—didn’t press the matter. This meant that a Justice who did notice the issue would have to overcome a lot of inertia to make it into a big deal. And for what? The majority probably didn’t want to be distracted by an issue that hadn’t been briefed. And if the dissenters had pressed the AIA, then the majority would likely have declared the AIA to be non-jurisdictional: as Hawley argues—both in her piece and in an amicus brief she filed in Hobby Lobby—moving the AIA into the non-jurisdictional column would have been consistent with other recent cases. Or perhaps the majority would have followed the decision below in construing the challenge as a claim against a regulatory mandate, not the tax associated with it. But all this is just speculation. As Hawley notes, we “may never be certain why” the Court didn’t address the AIA.
Hawley’s argument calls to mind a decade-old Supreme Court case raising similar issues. In Hibbs v. Winn, the Court reviewed the AIA’s cousin for state taxes, the Tax Injunction Act (TIA). Per Justice Ginsburg, the Court found no TIA bar in part because: “In a procession of cases not rationally distinguishable from this one, no Justice or member of the bar of this Court ever raised a [TIA] objection that, according to the petitioner in this case, should have caused us to order dismissal of the action for want of jurisdiction.” Justice Stevens concurred to argue that Congress had acquiesced in the “procession of cases” that Ginsburg alluded to. In sharp contrast, Justice Kennedy and three of his colleagues would have found a TIA bar, despite the Court’s “procession” of silent decisions. For these dissenters, “our failure to consider a question hardly equates to a thing’s being decided.” Thus, the Court’s earlier “exercise of federal jurisdiction does not and cannot establish jurisdiction.”
In light of Hibbs, it’s interesting to wonder how the Roberts Court would deal with Hawley’s argument, if it were to arise in the future. On the one hand, Hobby Lobby is just one decision—hardly a “procession”—so perhaps even Justice Ginsburg would not view its silence as evidence of the AIA’s scope. On the other hand, the Hibbs dissenters were all part of the Hobby Lobby majority and so might be reluctant to suggest that they had previously issued an ultra vires decision of such magnitude.
The big-picture lesson here is that doctrinal arguments based on precedential silence are generally unreliable. Instead of supporting whatever point you might want to make, a lacuna in a judicial opinion—even a Supreme Court opinion—could just be a blunder. As the Court itself put it almost a century ago: “Questions which merely lurk in the record, neither brought to the attention of the court nor ruled upon, are not to be considered as having been so decided as to constitute precedents.”
And it can take quite a bit for an issue to be “brought to the attention of the court.” In Hobby Lobby, for instance, the lower-court opinions discussed the AIA at length, finding that it did not apply. In addition, Hawley’s amicus brief in Hobby Lobby argued that the “first and foremost” reason for finding no AIA bar was that the AIA “is not jurisdictional.” With so much agreement that the AIA posed no obstacle, albeit for different reasons, the Court let the issue slip by.
The next time someone argues that a silent court must have had a particular point in mind, remember Hawley and Hobby Lobby.