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Reading Tea Leaves on ObamaCare

We’ll probably have to wait at least another week to hear the Supreme Court’s ruling on ObamaCare and the individual mandate, but there’s always more room for speculation. At Forbes, the Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy has a Talmudic reading on some recent comments from Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia. On Justice Ginsburg, who actually addressed the case last week at a liberal legal conference, Roy writes:

Ginsburg wittily put it this way: “If the individual mandate, requiring the purchase of insurance or the payment of a penalty, if that is unconstitutional, must the entire act fall? Or, may the mandate be chopped, like a head of broccoli, from the rest of the act?”

My understanding—again, from third-hand sources—is that this question of severability is the subject of intense debate among the justices, even now. It’s entirely unclear whether the Court will strike down the mandate and two related provisions—what I’ve called the “strike three” scenario; or take down the entirety of Title I, where the law’s restructuring of the private insurance market resides; or overturn the whole law. Indeed, it is probable that the Court has not yet decided how it will rule on this question.

That’s pretty interesting, if Roy’s third-hand sources are correct. If the Court hasn’t decided how to rule on this question, we could be waiting longer than just another week or two. The consensus among journalists and others closely following this seems to be that the ruling will come next Monday, or possibly later next week if the Court needs additional time. But there’s no deadline, and the Court can pretty much do what it wants when it comes to timing.

Roy also notes an interesting development from Justice Scalia, who released a book this week clarifying his position on a decision related to the Commerce Clause:

Wickard, [Scalia] writes, “expanded the Commerce Clause beyond all reason” by opining that “a farmer’s cultivation of wheat for his own consumption affected interstate commerce and thus could be regulated under the Commerce Clause.” …

The bottom line is that if Scalia thinks Wickard was wrongly decided, he’s almost certain to vote to overturn the mandate. This isn’t a surprise based on his commentary at oral argument, but it may shed light into the thinking of Justices Alito and Roberts, who are thought to share Scalia’s precedent-oriented approach to dealing with the Commerce Clause.

After Scalia’s tough questioning during the health care arguments, it seemed highly likely that he would side against the individual mandate. But Obama administration attorneys were reportedly speculating prior to that that Scalia could be a swing vote to uphold the mandate based on his previous opinions related to the Commerce Clause. Scalia may be attempting to reconcile this in his latest book.