Conservatives have been rightly disappointed with the Supreme Court ruling to uphold ObamaCare, but that disappointment has been all the more bitter because the case has been full of unpleasant surprises. Conservatives believed they had two objectives to get ObamaCare overturned: convince a majority of the justices there was no “limiting principle” to the individual mandate that would excuse it from setting precedent on the Commerce Clause, and convince Anthony Kennedy (the assumed swing vote) that because there was no limiting principle, the law could not survive an accurate reading of the Commerce Clause.
They did both, and yet still lost the case, thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to elevate politics over jurisprudence. But now it’s time for Roberts to confront disappointment himself. Roberts believed he was doing two things by upholding ObamaCare: he was settling the issue of whether the mandate is a tax (it is), thus protecting the Commerce Clause, and he was preventing the further delegitimization of the Supreme Court by the Democrats, thus improving its general reputation. He failed on both counts.
As Peter Wehner notes, now that Chief Justice Roberts has upheld the ObamaCare mandate as a “tax,” the administration no longer views it as a tax. Those finding solace in the fact that the chief justice, while adopting the administration’s extraordinarily weak “tax” argument, at least rejected its Commerce Clause contention, may be surprised to learn the part of his opinion relating to the Commerce Clause did not speak for the Supreme Court.
The official Syllabus notes that “Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II, concluding that the Anti-Injunction Act does not bar this suit,” and “delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part III-C, concluding that the individual mandate may be upheld as within Congress’s power under the Taxing Clause.” Part III-A of the Roberts opinion – concluding the ObamaCare mandate was not valid under the Commerce Clause – was not in the portion of his opinion that represents the opinion of the Court.
So we now know Congress cannot make us eat broccoli under the Commerce Clause, but can do so by enacting a broccoli mandate and imposing a failure-to-eat-broccoli tax. The lack of a limiting principle was thought to be fatal to the government’s Commerce Clause argument, but now there seems nothing Congress cannot mandate, as long as it does so with a failure-to-do-it tax. Congress need not even call it a tax, because calling it a tax may preclude it from being enacted. The name given to the ObamaCare penalty was the “shared responsibility payment.”
Who needs the Commerce Clause, with its subtle distinctions between commerce and non-commerce, activity and non-activity, regulation of commerce vs. creation of commerce, when you can simply levy a tax while assuring the public it is not a tax? Congress can enact a “shared responsibility payment” to accompany its mandate, even though Congress has no power under the Commerce Clause — the provision under which Congress purported to act – to issue the mandate, and the mandate thereby becomes valid. You can almost hear the Founders saying, “Are you serious? Are you serious?”
I will grant that the opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., which upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as constitutional based not on the Commerce Clause but instead on Congress’ power under the Taxing Clause, was clever. Even, in some respects, ingenious.
Roberts achieved a liberal end, upholding the ACA, while also employing conservative arguments and affirming conservative premises—including imposing limits on the Commerce Clause, finding that the Necessary and Proper Clause cannot be used as a stand-alone justification for a statute that is not otherwise justified by another enumerated power, and declaring that Congress cannot use its spending power to coerce state participation in federal schemes. Something for everyone.
Well, the Supreme Court, as it has so often before, surprised nearly everybody. Most people thought Justice Kennedy was the pivotal vote. He wasn’t. He thought the whole Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, as did Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas. The four liberal justices would have upheld the whole act. It was Chief Justice Roberts who made all the difference, and his idiosyncratic reasoning will have profound constitutional implications far beyond ObamaCare. Here are three, a distinctly mixed bag.
1) He limited federal power under the Commerce Clause. It is not constitutional to require people to buy a product. The clause is limited to regulating commerce that is, not commerce the government wants to see. That’s a big deal, because had the requirement been upheld, the power of the federal government under the Commerce Clause would have become essentially unlimited. As was pointed out in oral argument, you could be required to buy broccoli.
2) He greatly expanded the taxing power. Never before that I know of, has a federal tax been placed on inactivity. If you buy something, you pay a sales tax. If you earn income, you pay an income tax. If you do business as a corporation, you pay an excise tax. Now, if you don’t buy health insurance, you pay a tax on not doing so. What else then can be taxed? Not exercising? Not eating broccoli? Not agreeing with the president?
3) He considerably limited federal power over the states. The Tenth Amendment has been largely a dead letter for decades, declared a mere truism. (In which case, why did the Founding Fathers include it?) But Roberts ruled that while the federal government can tie strings to federal money given to the states—in this case additional Medicaid funds—it cannot coerce the states by threatening to take away other funds unless its will is complied with. This is a tactic the federal government has been using for years to, in effect, make states mere administrative districts of the federal government. For instance, it forced the states to adopt 21-to-drink laws or face the loss of federal highway funds. Roberts is arguing that the states are, indeed, sovereign within their own sphere. That is also a big deal.
With only days and perhaps even just a few hours left before the Supreme Court rules on the constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the second guessing has already begun among Democrats. Though the outcome is known only to the justices and their clerks and secretaries, in the months since the oral arguments revealed there was a good chance it would be overturned, the president’s party has sunk deeper and deeper into depression over the possibility. Though they may yet win, as today’s front-page feature in the New York Times reveals, many on the left are already starting the recriminations, with the White House and the congressional Democrats getting the lion’s share of the blame.
The president and congressional leaders such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are being lambasted for not taking the challenge to the bill’s constitutionality seriously as they forced it through the legislature. Pelosi’s response to the suggestion that there was any doubt about its legality was a now famous, “Are you serious? Are you serious?” But though that is a remark that will go down in the history books if the judges say no to ObamaCare, scapegoating her, the president or the Justice Department lawyers who did not anticipate the possibility is a waste of time. So, too, are some other liberal responses, such as liberal law professor Jonathan Turley’s suggestion in Friday’s Washington Post that the problem is that nine is too small a number of judges to make such a momentous decision, a solution Democrats won’t embrace if Mitt Romney wins in November and is the one doing the nominating of the extra judges.
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.
If sometime this month the Supreme Court rules ObamaCare unconstitutional liberals will need a scapegoat to blame for what would be not just a defeat for the president’s signature legislative achievement but a historic turning point in the struggle against the aggregation of federal power. But according to the New York Times, the culprit won’t be congressional Republicans or the Tea Party. Instead, it will be the humble green vegetable that many Americans profess to hate: broccoli.
According to the Times’s James Stewart, the turning point in the battle to overturn the health care law was the moment a simple argument illustrating the way liberals have been using the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to expand federal power took hold of the public imagination. It is, as he writes, the “defining symbol” of the debate. As Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out from the bench during oral arguments on the issue earlier this year, if Congress can require every citizen to purchase health insurance simply because it was perceived to be in the national interest, then it could make people buy broccoli, too. Stewart traces the origins of the analogy that has been raised repeatedly by libertarians since President Clinton’s attempt to ram a national health insurance bill through Congress in the 1990s. But while liberals dismiss it as simplistic, it actually goes straight to the heart of the issue. Indeed, if ObamaCare is overturned and the Court begins a rollback of the way liberals have been abusing the Constitution for a century, it may be that broccoli will have played a key role in preserving American liberty.
A letter in today’s Wall Street Journal, responding to Michael McConnell’s op-ed on “The Liberal Legal Meltdown Over ObamaCare,” acknowledges that “liberal constitutionalists” are ill-suited to cry “judicial activism,” having long advocated a philosophy that “unmoors constitutional interpretation from the actual text of the Constitution.” But the writer goes on to assert that “no real judicial conservative” should argue ObamaCare is unconstitutional, because to suggest Congress is not “regulating a form of economic activity” by mandating insurance purchases is “conceptual and economic sophistry.”
Later this month, the Supreme Court will likely decide whether the power to “regulate commerce” includes the power to order individuals to engage in it so Congress can regulate them. An affirmative answer would seem to convert a specifically-enumerated power into an unlimited mandate over any significant economic decision, including a decision not to participate in commerce designed by Congress. Such a conclusion might be attractive to a “liberal constitutionalist,” but it is hard to see why a “real judicial conservative,” or anyone else who felt bound by the text of the Commerce Clause, would buy it.
Presidential chutzpah. Well, at least you can admire him for that perhaps. After all, someone who graduated from Harvard Law School, edited the Harvard Law Review, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School must be familiar with Marbury v. Madison. As Wikipedia explains, it’s an important case:
Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803) is a landmark case in United States law and in the history of law worldwide. It formed the basis for the exercise of judicial review in the United States under Article III of the Constitution. It was also the first time in Western history a court invalidated a law by declaring it “unconstitutional.” The landmark decision helped define the boundary between the constitutionally separate executive and judicial branches of the American form of government.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was criticized by Obamacare supporters for failing, during his oral argument, to articulate a “limiting principle” on congressional power under the Commerce Clause — because he must have known the justices would ask for one. But Elena Kagan couldn’t answer the question two years ago; prominent Harvard and Georgetown professors couldn’t answer it a year ago; last year, the government conceded the lack of a limiting principle. The problem is a little deeper than Verrilli’s presentation.
The point was demonstrated again in the colloquy Justice Breyer had with Michael A. Carvin. Carvin noted that if Congress exceeded its power under the Commerce Clause, the law “doesn’t somehow become redeemed because it has beneficial policy effects in the health care market.” That would mean Congress could compel everyone to buy anything if Congress thought it beneficial, since “every compelled purchase promotes commerce.” Justice Kagan started to ask a question, but Breyer initiated a long colloquy with Carvin (Transcript, pp. 85-90), which ended as follows:
JUSTICE BREYER: … then the question is when you are born and you don’t have insurance and you will in fact get sick and you will in fact impose costs, have you perhaps involuntarily — perhaps simply because you are a human being — entered this particular market, which is a market for health care?
MR. CARVIN: If being born is entering the market, then I can’t think of a more plenary power Congress can have, because that literally means they can regulate every human activity from cradle to grave. I thought that’s what distinguished the plenary police power from the very limited commerce power. I don’t disagree that giving the Congress plenary power to mandate property transfers from A to B would be a very efficient way of helping B and of accomplishing Congress’s objectives. But the framers –
JUSTICE BREYER: I see the point. You can go back to, go back to Justice Kagan. Don’t forget her question. [Emphasis added].
JUSTICE KAGAN: I’ve forgotten my question. (Laughter).
MR. CARVIN: I — I was facing the same dilemma, Justice Kagan.
The conventional wisdom from “experts’” polling has been that President Obama’s health care reform law is likely to be upheld by the Supreme Court. But after today’s arguments, it sounds like that narrative may have changed. CNN’s senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who previously predicted that the Obama administration would prevail at the Supreme Court, came out of the hearing today with a very different perspective. Via HotAir:
The Supreme Court just wrapped up the second day of oral arguments in the landmark case against President Obama’s healthcare overhaul, and reports from inside the courtroom indicate that the controversial law took quite a beating.
Today’s arguments focused around the central constitutional question of whether Congress has the power to force Americans to either pay for health insurance or pay a penalty.
According to CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, the arguments were “a train wreck for the Obama administration.”
“This law looks like it’s going to be struck down. I’m telling you, all of the predictions including mine that the justices would not have a problem with this law were wrong,” Toobin just said on CNN.
I agree with the Wall Street Journal that the Supreme Court’s case deciding the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (with oral arguments commencing today) is among the most important and consequential in our lifetime. “The powers that the Obama Administration is claiming change the structure of the American government as it has existed for 225 years,” according to the Journal. “It is not an exaggeration to say that the Supreme Court’s answers may constitute a hinge in the history of American liberty and limited and enumerated government. The Justices must decide if those principles still mean something.”
But while President Obama is pushing the boundaries of federal power to the breaking point, his actions can also be seen as the logical extension of the progressive movement, what with its collectivist impulses, its disregard for the separation of powers, and its basic contempt for the American Constitution. The Constitution, after all, is (among other things) a check on the power of the state. Which means that James Madison’s handiwork is an impediment to the designs of progressives, who want to cede ever greater authority to the federal government.