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June 29, 2015

On King v. Burwell: What Is a Natural Reading?

In King v. Burwell, decided last Thursday, the Supreme Court has once again (no doubt inadvertently) given us a lesson in the philosophy of language. The dispute in the case is over the meaning of the phrase "exchange established by the state." Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, argues that the phrase can and should be read to include an exchange established by the federal government. He explains that "exchange established by the state" is ambiguous because when read in context (as he proceeds to do) it means something different than it does when read in isolation. Justice Scalia retorts that by the logic of such a reading, "everything is ambiguous." That's both right and not right.


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