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March 23, 2010

Will The Courts Strike Down ObamaCare ? Don’t Count On It

by Doug Mataconis

Over at The American Spectator, conservative lawyer Stacy Cline points out that the legal challenges to ObamaCare have the odds, and the case law, against them:

Last night’s passage of the greatest expansion of the federal government since the Great Society is a sad day for our country, not only because it may bankrupt our future, but also because we have no recourse to the Constitution. Our Constitution was elegantly designed to protect individuals from too much concentration of power in any one source, but the Supreme Court has evolved into a body that has protected and even facilitated the modern regulatory state at the expense of our founding principles. The optimism of state attorneys general and others who hope to challenge the constitutionality of this legislation is admirable, but such challenges are not likely to be successful.

But what, you might ask, about what seems like it might be the most vulnerable part of the health care bill, the individual mandates ?

Well, as Cline points out, that may actually be the weakest ground of all:

Despite this patent overreach by Congress, the Supreme Court’s flawed jurisprudence on this issue probably permits it. The government will argue that it has the authority to impose the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which permits Congress “to regulate Commerce … among the several States.” Supreme Court precedent has interpreted the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate and prohibit all sorts of economic activities that in the aggregate substantially affect interstate commerce.

In the 1942 case Wickard v. Filburn, the Supreme Court authorized the broadest federal power to date, concluding that a farmer growing wheat for his own use was not exempt from federal caps on wheat production that had been established by the government to artificially drive up the price of wheat. The fact that the farmer was growing wheat for his own use meant he would not purchase it on the open market. The Court held that his failure to purchase wheat in the market, taken in the aggregate, would have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Thus, the Court laid the groundwork for Congress to regulate nearly any activity with a weak connection to economic activity, and for years Congress did not even bother to establish the basis for its Commerce Clause authority.

The Supreme Court had the opportunity to overturn this precedent in Raich v. Gonzales, the 2005 medical marijuana case, but balked. In that case, the Court decided that it was within Congress’s Commerce Clause power to prohibit individuals from growing medicinal marijuana for their personal use. In reaching this conclusion, the Court affirmed that activity that does not fall under the Commerce Clause alone can be reached as part of a broader scheme to regulate interstate commerce. This case was blow to those of us who thought the opinions in Lopez and Morrison signaled that the Court was willing to scale federal power back to something closer to the Constitution’s original intent.

The individual mandate can be distinguished from these cases, as it compels economic activity where Wickard and Raich did not. But what Raich showed is that the Supreme Court does not have the will to limit federal power when Congress has made the most modest of showings that the activity has economic effects. The individual mandate is likely to be upheld as part of a legislative scheme that regulates economic activity, and the insult to our constitutional government, designed to limit the federal government to enumerated powers, will have received judicial sanction.

Moreover, as Cline goes on to point out, the Court may not even need to reach the Commerce Clause issue. The Solicitor General, who will be arguing the case in favor of upholding the law, will clearly argue that the mandate and it’s penalty provision are, in reality, a tax, which would be governed under the General Welfare Clause. If that’s the case, then the challenge is pretty much doomed:

The last time a penalty was deemed an unconstituional tax by the Supreme Court was 1922, and since then the Court has permitted taxes on gambling, tobacco, alcohol and a number of other disfavored activities. Should the Commerce Clause prove to be an indefensible basis of authority, the General Welfare Clause would likely be another source of authority. The current Supreme Court, which time and again demonstrates its willingness to uphold the modern regulatory state to legal challenge, is unlikely to delve into a nearly century old line of cases limiting Congress’s ability to impose penalties as taxes.

If they’re not going to over-rule a clearly wrong 68 year old case, they sure aren’t going to overrule one that’s more than a century old.

Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr gives odds on how likely a SCOTUS ruling against ObamaCare actually is:

With all this blogging here at the VC about whether the courts will invalidate the individual mandate as exceeding Congress’s Article I authority, I thought I would add my two cents by estimating the odds of that happening. In my view, there is a less than 1% chance that courts will invalidate the individual mandate as exceeding Congress’s Article I power. I tend to doubt the issue will get to the Supreme Court: The circuits will be splitless, I expect, and the Supreme Court will decline to hear the case. In the unlikely event a split arises and the Court does take it, I would expect a 9–0 (or possibly 8–1) vote to uphold the individual mandate.

Blogging about such issues tends to bring out some unhappy responses, so let me be clear about a few things: (a) I don’t like the individual mandate, (b) if I were a legislator, I wouldn’t have voted for it, (c) I don’t like modern commerce clause doctrine, (d) if I were magically made a Supreme Court Justice in the mid 20th century, I wouldn’t have supported the expansion of the commerce clause so that it covers, well, pretty much everything, (e) I agree that the individual mandate exceeds an originalist understanding of the Commerce Clause, and (f) I agree that legislators and the public are free to interpret the Constitution differently than the courts and to vote against (or ask their legislator to vote against) the legislation on that basis.

But with all of these caveats, I’ll stand by my prediction.

I agree with Kerr.

That doesn’t mean that the law shouldn’t be challenged in Court. It should. These arguments need to be made and, even if the challenges are ultimately unsuccessful, they will bring to the forefront issues about the size and scope of government, and the extent to which the limitations of the Constitution have been exceeded that maybe, just maybe, the American people will wake up.

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3 Comments

  1. Hmm… I was considering writing a post on the commerce clause issue specifically using Wickard & Raich as examples. Seems my work is done for me.

    I think the “exchanges” are probably going to be used to support the government’s case as well if it comes to a commerce clause question. The exchanges are designed to allow multiple states to band together and create mega-exchanges. While I think this is purely a stalking horse to the day that we’d see one large national exchange, I think in the short term the government can argue the individual mandate is critical to the operation of multi-state exchanges, and thus allowable under the interstate commerce clause. I.e. if someone chooses not to purchase insurance, it is possible that he may be choosing not to purchase it from another state, thus affecting interstate commerce.

    BS I know, but that’s one of the arguments that past commerce clause jurisprudence seems to agree with.

    Of course, to hear the Republicans bring up the commerce clause when their only stated health care idea was forcing states to allow people to buy over state lines is somewhat interesting…

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — March 23, 2010 @ 8:51 am
  2. Ah, the Commerce Clause, that great DO WHAT YA WANNA DO clause that seems to enable tsarist levels of arbitrary Federal governance.

    Comment by Walter — March 23, 2010 @ 10:36 am
  3. [...] Will Courts Strike Down ObamaCare?  Don’t bet on it [Liberty Papers] [...]

    Pingback by Roundup – Steven Seagal and Wine « The Heat Death Hour — March 23, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

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