The founders are almost always relevant, even to our most up to date concerns. This is true not because they could anticipate all those concerns, but because they had thought through principles that often apply to a wide variety of concerns, at whatever time. This is especially the case when the concerns take the form of lawsuits, since many of the founders were well trained lawyers who understood the basic principles of American law.
This is especially true of the man who was one of the greatest lawyers of the founding generation: Alexander Hamilton. I thought of this recently when going through some of Hamilton’s papers for a project I am working on. In the context of responding to some complaining public creditors, Hamilton, as secretary of the treasury, explained some principles of statutory construction that are relevant to one of the most controversial cases the Supreme Court will hear this term: the challenge to the Affordable Care Act, and specifically to the subsidies that the Obama administration is providing to people signed up for the federal exchanges.
I develop this at length at Nation’s Review‘s legal issues blog, Bench Memos. The thrust of the argument, however, is in this passage:
Hamilton instructs the creditors — and today’s liberals agitated over the possibility of an unfavorable ruling in King v. Burwell — that an interpretation is not necessarily wrong just because it goes against the general intent of the law. This kind of thing can happen, because legislators make mistakes, and the law as they have written it may not properly give effect to their intentions. This is, as Hamilton says, not uncommon. He admits that such an interpretation might involve some important inconveniences for those people whose interests are touched by the law. He adds, however, that when we are observing the “rules of legal interpretation” those inconveniences cannot override the plain language of an “important directory clause” in the law. Today, then, the Supreme Court might be obliged to hold that subsidies are authorized only for participants in “state” exchanges, even if that ruling defeats the general operation of the law to a considerable extent.
You can read the whole thing here.