Administrative law has long been understood to be a law unto itself. Charged with the interpretation of complex statutes, the Supreme Court has taken a consistently deferential position toward agency interpretations of the statutes that they administer.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the case of Astrue v. Capato, decided earlier this week, where the question was whether IVF twins, conceived after their father died of esophageal cancer, could claim survivor benefits under the Social Security law.
The catch in the case was that the decedent’s will did not mention these posthumous children, so that the question of whether they counted as his children turned on Florida inheritance law. Michael Astrue, the Social Security Commissioner, decided to play hardball on the issue, and the Supreme Court--after an extended, mind-numbing exegesis of the word “child” under the Social Security law--held that his interpretation was correct, or at least correct enough to command the respect of the Court.
When I think about the problems of potential abuse in the administration of the Social Security system, this one does not rank in the top one million. No one has the slightest desire to heap indignity and deprivation on top of family charity. Yet the United States Supreme Court proved that, when it comes to administrative law, it does not have a heart, and it does not care about the personal issues involved in the case. That is, oddly enough, the correct attitude to take on legal matters.
But the same cannot be said for the Social Security Commission, which should have looked elsewhere to close down its own yawning deficit. One only hopes that Congress will pass a bit of ad hoc, retroactive legislation that says in this case, and all others like it, these children conceived after the death of their father should receive their benefits, regardless of the state laws of inheritance, which should be amended to cover the case in any event. If there were ever a case for big government this is it, so let’s hope that Congress can open this one purse string a little wider.