Category Archives: Commerce Clause

“Bad” or “Wrong” or “I don’t like it” is not equivalent to “Unconstitutional”

In a comment on someone elses post, another reader wrote “The DEA is an unconstitutional and illegal agency”.

This bugs me… We frequently see these sorts of statements made about the DEA, the ATF, the federal reserve (where ok, there’s at least a rational and reasonable though flawed argument to be made… most of the people shouting stuff like that above aren’t making those arguments, but still)… Basically any federal agency that they don’t like, or which enforces laws, or uses delegated powers which they personally don’t like.

No, the mere existence of the DEA is not unconstitutional or illegal. It is perfectly constitutional in that it is an executive agency chartered to enforce the laws promulgated by the legislative branch.

The fact that the federal government has no constitutional authority to outright ban or criminalize such substances as the DEA is chartered to regulate, or to ban or criminalize their manufacture, use, or possession (and only limited power to regulate their sale. No, sorry, regulating interstate commerce and making such laws as necessary for the general welfare does not grant them such broad and deterministic powers… and Wickard v. Filburn is bad law and needs to be overturned), does not mean that all laws relating to such substances are illegal or unconstitutional. There are legitimate regulatory powers that such an agency may lawfully and constitutionally exercise.

AS CURRENTLY EXTANT AND IN THEIR CURRENT ROLES AND ACTIONS… The DEA often engages in unconstitutional behaviors, and acts to enforce unconstitutional laws. That much is certainly true. But they are not inherently unconstitutional, or illegal.

Those are actually really important distinctions. Not just semantics or distinctions without difference.

This is so, because you go about addressing the issues, and solving the problems, differently. Things which are blatantly and directly illegal or unconstitutional are best addressed in one way. Things which are peripherally so, are best addressed in a very different way.

You have to shoot at the proper target, with the proper ammunition.

Also, it’s really important to remember, that “bad and stupid” or “harmful” or “undesirable”, or “pointless”; does not necessarily mean “unconstitutional”. Nor does “constitutional” mean “good”, or “useful” or “effective”.

That’s not even a matter of judges discretion or interpretation… The constitution actually provides far less protection of rights, and limitation of powers, than people believe it, expect it, and wish it to (at least explicitly… the 9th and 10th amendments… there’s much bigger and messier issue).

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

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The Mind of an Anti-Gun Loon

I’m a defender of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms but let’s face it: there are some loony gun owners on our side. The anti-gun media loves to try to hold these people up as typical supporters of the 2nd Amendment, the castle and stand your ground doctrines. If they cannot find the loon they are looking for, the media can edit a segment on TV or take a person’s words out of context to make it seem as though a rational person is irrational.

What we don’t hear about much is that there are loony people on the other side of the debate. Dallin Kelson writing an article “Loganville woman jumped to the gun” in The Independent Florida Alligator is one example.

We can learn a lot about the problematic illusion-making tendencies of the discourse on guns by analyzing a recent news story from Loganville, Ga.
You may have heard about it: A lady was hiding in her attic from a burglar with her two kids and her Saturday night special when he used a crowbar to bust in on them. So she did what she had to do. Next thing you know, the creeper with them two feets who came a-creepin’ like a black cat do is on the floor full of .38 holes.

There’s an important aspect of this story I need to draw attention to at this point because it perplexes the hell outta me: He didn’t mean to violently intrude upon this family.

What? He didn’t mean to “violently” intrude? This two bit thug intended to “peacefully” intrude?

No answer. So he rings the doorbell a bunch of times, and instead of answering the door or somehow asking him what he wants, they hide and call the cops!
Now that he’s satisfied that no one is home, he begins liberating the family’s belongings in the name of the proletariat. Like any good burglar, he’s thorough, working through every room in the house until he eventually reaches the attic.

He opens the door, and suddenly a relatively harmless cat burglary becomes a violent home invasion.

I have no words.

The problematic part of how this scenario played out is not what she did in the heat of that moment. I just want to know why she didn’t, you know, answer the door in the first place.

C’mon, you gotta at least open a window and ask the dude what he wants!

Why didn’t she answer the door? Dallin, frankly that’s none of your damned business. This was her house and for whatever reason, she didn’t feel comfortable answering the door. She don’t “gotta” do anything. (Did I mention that Dallin is an English major?)

Obviously I’m not saying she deserved to have her house broken into.

Obviously? Could have fooled me.

She’s been so conditioned by the stories of murders and home invasions that populate the evening news that she immediately went into xenophobia-induced panic mode as soon as someone whose appearance was mildly threatening intruded into her comfort zone.

Whether or not the media is “populating the evening news” with murders and home invasions or that she “went into xenophobia-induced panic mode” is beside the point. In this case, this panic mode probably saved her life and the lives of her children. Her intuition was dead on. Sometimes when a stranger is banging on your door and won’t go away, he might intend to do harm to you. Just a thought.

From all appearances, this guy was trying to find an EMPTY house to break into. If she had initially responded proactively by confronting him when he was a random, annoying guy hanging around ringing the doorbell incessantly, there’s a nonzero chance he would’ve just made up some excuse and moved on.

Instead she acted in an inexplicably irrational and paranoid way. Now he’s badly wounded, maybe dying, and her kids had to watch their mother repeatedly shoot a man while he begged her, crying, to stop.

Maybe guns are good, maybe they’re bad, but this story should’ve never gotten to the point where they were involved.

Sometimes it’s easier to ask someone just what the hell they think they’re doing rather than wait for them to do it.

Yeah, if only the poor bastard found an empty home or one occupied by an unarmed woman…

Is this article just a poor attempt at satire? I hope so. On a more positive note, of the 51 comments to the article (so far) almost all of them say this writer is a moron. I have to agree.

Do We Really Want the President to Enforce ALL Federal Laws?

The Rule of Law, theoretically at least, is superior to the arbitrary Rule of Men. For most of human history, the law has been subject to the whim of a head of state be s/he a monarch, czar, dictator, emperor, etc. James Madison and the framers of the U.S. Constitution wisely determined that the document would be the “supreme law of the land” and everyone from the President to the peasant would be subject to the same law.

But what happens to the Rule of Law when the laws become too vague, too numerous, too unpredictable, and too unjust? According to a 2008 Louisiana State University study (referenced in this article), there were over 4,500 federal crimes on the books. This does not include the thousands more regulations that also carry criminal penalties.

So my question to conservatives and some libertarians who have been critical of President Obama’s executive order to allow individuals who were brought illegally across the border as children under the age of 16 to have temporary work permits is as follows: Do you believe that the president should enforce each and every one of the over 27,000 pages of federal code and prosecute everyone who can be accused of any of the 4,500 + crimes? Should the president send uniformed men with guns to raid the Gibson Guitar Corp, dairy farms who sell raw milk to the public, and medical marijuana dispensaries which operate pursuant to state law? If the argument is that the president is shirking his responsibility by picking and choosing the laws he will “faithfully execute,” the answer necessarily must be “yes.”

Obviously, the federal government even as large as it is could not possibly enforce every single federal law. Assuming for a moment the federal government could enforce every single federal law and regulation, as people who claim to value personal liberty above all else, is this something that would in any way be compatible with liberty?

I think not.

When the federal code is so full of laws and regulations, it’s the same as having no Rule of Law at all. The president necessarily must decide which laws to enforce and which to ignore or at the very least prioritize how he will execute the law. As immigration laws go, it seems to me that deporting individuals who were educated here, not criminals, and pay taxes should be a much lower priority to be deported or jailed than someone who as an adult illegally immigrated, stole someone’s identity, and committed a host of other crimes.

Beyond the sheer volume of laws and regulations, I do think there are instances when the president should NOT enforce the law if he, in good faith, believes the law violates the constitution and/or is unjust. Who among us today would argue that when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was in force that a president who refused to enforce such a law was acting like a king because he was usurping the “will of the people”? I would also point out that when the Fugitive Slave Act was the law of the land, it wasn’t at all unconstitutional even though most sane Americans today, regardless of political affiliation and/or philosophy would say the law was immoral. If the constitution itself violates Natural Law (i.e. does not recognize the rights of life, liberty, and property for all human beings), then it too should be nullified in those instances.

Nullification presents problems of its own, however. I recognize that nullification of laws passed by congress presents a possible constitutional crisis. We certainly do not want an all-powerful executive branch that can ignore the congress and the courts, so what is the solution?

The solution, however politically difficult it would be, would be to repeal the vast majority of the federal criminal code and much of the remaining 27,000 pages of statutes. The most sensible place to begin would be with the federal criminal code. Most criminal law should be dealt with at the state level anyway. I haven’t checked recently but I’m pretty sure that rape, murder, burglary, assault/battery, and fraud are crimes in all 50 states and in all U.S. territories.

Additionally, even those who believe the war on (some) drugs is good public policy, most states would most likely (unfortunately) continue locking up non-violent drug offenders without Washington’s help. The country we love would not descend into chaos if criminal law was dealt with almost entirely by the states. If we cannot trust the states to handle protecting individuals inside their borders, what is the point of even having states?

If the federal criminal code only dealt with crimes such as counterfeiting, treason, enacting legitimate interstate commerce regulations (to keep the trade among the several states “regular,” not what the interstate commerce clause has become thanks to SCOTUS), and yes, immigration policy, the president could and should conceivably enforce all the federal laws that are neither unconstitutional nor immoral. The president would no longer have the discretion to enforce the laws he favors and not enforce the ones he does not.

Supreme Court Upholds Affordable Care Act

As Quincy notes below, the Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act today by relying upon an argument that most people had not been paying attention to:

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday left standing the basic provisions of the health care overhaul, ruling that the government may use its taxation powers to push people to buy health insurance.

The narrowly delineated decision was a victory for President Obama and Congressional Democrats, with a 5-to-4 majority, including the conservative chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., affirming the central legislative pillar of Mr. Obama’s presidency.

Chief Justice Roberts, the author of the majority opinion, surprised observers by joining the court’s four more liberal members in the key finding and becoming the swing vote. Justices Anthony Kennedy, frequently the swing vote, joined three more conservative members in a dissent and read a statement in court that the minority viewed the law as “invalid in its entirety.”

The decision did significantly restrict one major portion of the law: the expansion of Medicaid, the government health-insurance program for low-income and sick people, giving states more flexibility.

The case is seen as the most significant before the court since Bush v. Gore ruling, which decided the 2000 presidential election.

In addition to its political reverberations, the decision allows sweeping policy changes affecting one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the economy, touching nearly everyone from the cradle to the grave.

The political fight over health care remains far from over, with Republicans campaigning on a promise to repeal the law, which they see as an unaffordable infringement on the rights of individuals. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has promised to undo it if elected.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the decision offers no endorsement of the law’s wisdom, and that letting it survive reflects “a general reticence to invalidate the acts of the nation’s elected leaders.”

“It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices,” he wrote.

The court’s ruling is a crucial milestone for the law, allowing almost all of its far-reaching changes to roll forward. Several of its notable provisions have already taken hold in the past two years, and more are imminent. Ultimately, it is intended to end the United States’ status as the only rich country with large numbers of uninsured people, by expanding both the private market and Medicaid.

The key provision that 26 states opposing the law had challenged – popularly known as the individual mandate – requires virtually all citizens to buy health insurance meeting minimum federal standards, or to pay a penalty if they refuse.

Many conservatives considered the mandate unconstitutional under the commerce clause, arguing that if the federal government could compel people to buy health insurance, it could compel them to buy almost anything — even broccoli, the archetypal example debated during the oral arguments three months ago.

In a complex decision, the court found that Congress’ powers to regulate commerce did not justify the mandate. But it reasoned that the penalty, to be collected by the Internal Revenue Service starting in 2015, is a tax and is not unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Roberts, in the majority, said that the mandate was unconstitutional under the Constitution’s commerce clause. But that did not matter if the penalty that enforces it was constitutional on other grounds.

The court’s four liberals made it clear that they disagreed with the Chief Justice’s view of the commerce clause, but joined him because the effect of his ruling was to let the law stand.

The Obama administration had said in court in 2010 that the mandate could be upheld under the taxation powers, which they called even more sweeping than the federal power to regulate interstate commerce.

The outcome, I think, is striking many people as a surprise for two reasons.

First of all, if there was any Justice on the Court who seemed likely to be the fifth vote along with the Court’s four liberal members to uphold the ACA, it would be Justice Kennedy. Indeed, after the end of three days of oral argument in March it had seemed as though Roberts was largely in line with Justices Scalia and Alito (and Thomas) in being skeptical of the mandate’s Constitutionality while Justice Kennedy was the one who seemed to be trying to find way to uphold the mandate. One thing this teaches us is that most predictions you hear about the Supreme Court are usually just wild guesses, and that you can’t always determine how a case is going to turn out based on the oral arguments. In the end, rather than Kennedy being the deciding vote in this case, it was Chief Justice Roberts who sided with the Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan to uphold the signature domestic legislation of a Democratic President who has, in the past been critical of many of the Court’s rulings under Roberts.

The second reason this is a surprise is the fact that it was the tax argument that ended up being the basis upon which the law was upheld. For the past two years, nearly all the discussion about the legal merits of the ACA have centered around the question of whether it could stand as a proper application of Congress’s power under the Interstate Commerce Clause. There was a side argument being advanced on behalf of the government in the ensuing litigation that argued that the mandate could also be upheld under the taxing power, but it generally didn’t get much attention from the media or those who were actively engaged in the fight against the law. More importantly, none of the Federal Courts that heard the challenges to the law before it got to the Supreme Court adopted the tax argument as a reason for sustaining the law. Some of those Courts explicitly rejected the argument, while others simply stated that they did not need to rule on the arguments because they found the mandate constitutional under the Commerce Clause. Additionally, at the Supreme Court arguments in March, the lawyers and Justices spent far more time talking about the Commerce Clause arguments than the tax argument. To a large degree, that argument had been filed away and largely forgotten. But, as we see today, not completely forgotten.

It was Law Professor Jack Balkin who first advanced the  argument that the mandate was Constitutional precisely because it was a tax:

he individual mandate, which amends the Internal Revenue Code, is not actually a mandate at all. It is a tax. It gives people a choice: they can buy health insurance or they can pay a tax roughly equal to the cost of health insurance, which is used to subsidize the government’s health care program and families who wish to purchase health insurance.

(…)

The Constitution gives Congress the power to tax and spend money for the general welfare. This tax promotes the general welfare because it makes health care more widely available and affordable. Under existing law, therefore, the tax is clearly constitutional.

The mandate is also not a “direct” tax which must be apportioned among the states by population. Direct taxes are taxes on land or “head” taxes on the general population. The individual mandate does not tax land. It is not assessed on the population generally but only on people who don’t buy insurance and aren’t otherwise exempt. It is a tax on behavior, like a tax on businesses that don’t install anti-pollution equipment.

Many important and popular government programs are based Congress’s ability to give incentives through taxation and redistribute tax revenues for public purposes. To strike down the individual mandate the Supreme Court would have to undermine many years of precedents justifying these programs that stretch back to the New Deal (and in the case of the rules for direct taxes, to the very founding of the country).

Many dismissed Balkin’s argument but it was clear even when he wrote that back in March 2010, shortly after the law had been passed by Congress, that if the Court accepted it then the entire argument against the mandate specifically and the law in general would crumble into dust. And, that is exactly what has happened today.

We’ll be spending much time arguing the political ramifications of this decision, but it’s fair to see that this is now what most people were expecting. For the past two weeks or so, and indeed ever since the arguments in March, the left has seemingly been preparing itself for the likelihood that they would lose the mandate, if not the entire law. I didn’t see very much of this on the right, but now they’ll have to deal with the fact that they legal arguments they had been rallying around for two years have been rejected, and that if the ACA is going to be repealed it will have to be done by Congress. Given the fact that it’s very unlikely that Republicans will get 60 votes in the Senate any time soon, it strikes me that this is quite unlikely to happen.

On Judge Jerry Smith’s “Homework Assignment” And Judicial Deference To The Legislature

Last Tuesday, a federal judge in the 5th Circuit, Jerry Smith, blasted a DOJ lawyer on an ObamaCare case in the wake of Obama’s comments on judicial activism. The Judge assigned the lawyer a three-page, single spaced homework assignment to draft a position on whether the judiciary has the legitimate right to overturn Unconstitutional legislation.

Everyone was up in arms over this, and to be honest, I frankly think it was pointless, in bad taste, and didn’t do anything but spin up a news cycle for about 24 hours. After reading a particular Popehat piece, I’m not all that surprised, but I’m certainly a bit dismayed that Jerry Smith decided that this was a necessary act.

Well, the homework assignment is here for all to see:

DOJ Letter to 5th Circuit re Judicial Authority

There’s a section in here that is particularly interesting. One aspect of this is an “F-U” to the judge, but points to something that I think is a bit unnecessary in Constitutional jurisprudence:

While duly recognizing the courts’ authority to engage in judicial review, the Executive Branch has often urged courts to respect the legislative judgments of Congress. See, e.g. , Nature’s Daily. v. Glickman, 1999 WL 158 1396, at *6; State University of New York v. Anderson, 1999 WL 680463, at *6; Rojas v. Fitch, 1998 WL 457203, at *7; United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 75i v. Brown Group, 1995 WL 938594, at *6.

The Supreme Court has often acknowledged the appropriateness of reliance on the political branches’ policy choices and judgments. See, e.g., Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New Eng., 546 U.S. 320, 329 (2006) (explaining that, in granting relief, the courts ‘·try not to nullify more of a legislature’s work than is necessary” because they recognize that’” [a] ruling of unconstitutionality frustrates the intent of the elected representatives of the people’”(alteration in the original) (quoting Regan v. Time, inc. , 468 U.S. 641, 652 (1984) (plurality opinion))); Turner Broadcasting System, inc., 512 U.S. at 665-66. The “Court accords ‘ great The “Court accords ‘ great weight to the decisions of Congress”‘ in part because “[t]he Congress is a coequal branch of government whose Members take the same oath [judges] do to uphold the Constitution of the United States.” Rostker v. Goldberg, 453 U.S. 57,64 (1981) (quoting Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Democratic National Committee, 412 U.S. 94, 102 (1973)). These principles of deference are fully applicable when Congress legislates in the commercial sphere. The courts accord particular deference when evaluating the appropriateness of the means Congress has chosen to exercise its enumerated powers, including the Commerce Clause, to accomplish constitutional ends. See, e.g. , NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 32 (1937); McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 408 (1819). See also Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, 651 F.3d 529, 566 (6th Cir. 20 11) (Opinion of Sutton, J.); Seven Sky v. Holder, 661 F.3d 1, 18-19 (D.C. Cir. 201 1) (Opinion of Silberman, J.)

So the Supreme Court should grant a great deal of deference to Congress, because Congress cares deeply about their Constitutional obligation!

Paging the folks over at Volokh:

Most of us know that when then-Speaker Pelosi was asked where the Constitution gives Congress the power to enact an “individual mandate,” she replied with a mocking “are you serious? Are you serious?”

Here are a few more pearls of constitutional wisdom from our elected representatives.
Rep. Conyers cited the “Good and Welfare Clause” as the source of Congress’s authority [there is no such clause].
Rep. Stark responded, “the federal government can do most anything in this country.”
Rep. Clyburn replied, “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says the federal government has anything to do with most of the stuff we do. How about [you] show me where in the Constitution it prohibits the federal government from doing this?”
Rep. Hare said “I don’t worry about the Constitution on this, to be honest […] It doesn’t matter to me.” When asked, “Where in the Constitution does it give you the authority …?” He replied, “I don’t know.”
Sen. Akaka said he “not aware” of which Constitutional provision authorizes the healthcare bill.
Sen. Leahy added, “We have plenty of authority. Are you saying there’s no authority?”
Sen. Landrieu told a questioner, “I’ll leave that up to the constitutional lawyers on our staff.”

So some don’t care, and some just assume the authority exists but can’t cite it, and some make up new sections of text in the Constitution that don’t even exist. Deferring to Congress on whether or not legislation is Constitutional is like deferring to Philip Morris on whether cigarettes are good for your health.

How far we have fallen…

Reading the point/counterpoint posts on the question of how the supreme court would decide on Obamacares constitutionality, was quite disturbing to me in several ways.

On the one hand I was heartened, because clearly both Brad and Doug are sane and rational folks with a reasonably solid background in both law and politics, and a foundational understanding of the constitution…

Of course, that only highlights how many people in this country are not.

Any reading of the constitution… of the very intent of the founding of this nation… makes it clear that our federal government is meant to be one of of limited and enumerated powers. If the government can mandate this, they can mandate anything. This is the fundamental argument about the necessity for a limiting principle to any government act.

And anyone who doesn’t want unlimited, unconstrained government can see that. Sadly, it seems that the idea of unlimited, unconstrained government is quite popular in some quarters… even with some supreme court justices.

The basic liberal/progressive/leftist argument for socialized medicine is “we should do this even if it IS illegal and unconstitutional, because it’s the right thing to do so the supreme court should uphold it”.

I.E. “It’s good because we want it, and therefore it should be legal because it is good; and we need to get rid of this whole “limited government” thing, because it gets in the way of us doing what is right and good.”

What I also find heartening is that both Brad and Doug both seem to have a good sense of all of this…

But that is also disturbing…

Because both of them seem to share the same actual opinion:

Both believe that Obamacare is ACTUALLY unconstitutional, and should be struck down…

…It’s just that Brad is cynical enough about the supreme court and the political aspects of the decision that he thinks enough justices will be able to argue themselves into ignoring the constitution and doing what they want to do, rather than what is right.

… and Doug believes that there’s a good possibility of that as well; he just has a bit more hope that they won’t.

… and if you look around the commentariat, that’s pretty much the split of positions that every other knowledgable observer has as well.

And if that isn’t disturbing to you, then you really have no idea what is going on, do you?

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

Counterpoint: The Supreme Court Will Find The Individual Mandate Unconstitutional

Earlier this week, Brad Warbiany started out the latest in our occasional series of Point-Counterpoint exchanges by arguing that the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold the Constitutionality of the Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. I’ll start off by saying that this is not an all implausible. Indeed, I’ve argued myself in the past that the odds were quite good that the Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of the mandate. Moreover, as Brad notes, the history of the Supreme Court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence has been one where the Court has essentially been nearly completely deferential to Congressional exercises of authority in this area. If one were making a bet, the safe bet would be the one that says the mandate would be upheld. Nonetheless, as I argue below I believe that the Supreme Court will in the end strike down the mandate, although the fate of the rest of the PPACA remains far from certain.

The Mandate Forces Citizens To Act In A Manner Never Before Seen In American History

Brad argues against the assertion that the mandate is unique in American history because it forces citizens to purchase a product from a private seller by pointing to examples of other things that the government forces people to do, such as the military draft and jury service. It’s correct that these programs are, at least theoretically, authorized by various provisions of Article I, Section 8. However, that’s very different from what the mandate purports to set in place, which is a requirement that every person in the United States engage in a specific commercial transaction whether they choose to or not. As more than one legal commentator has noted, this is unprecedented in American history and likely one of the main reasons that the PPACA itself has aroused the ire of such a large segment of the American public. As a general rule, Americans don’t like being told what to do by the government and, for many people, this was a bridge too far.

The question is whether it is authorized under the Constitution, and I think the case in favor of it is far stronger than the supporters of the law have been willing to admit up until last week’s hearings.

The Commerce Clause

As I noted above, the Supreme Court has, at least since the New Deal Era, been very deferential to Congressional assertions of authority under the Commerce Clause. This started, as Brad notes, with the case of Wickard v. Filburn in which the Court upheld a provision of the Agricultural Adjustment Act that allowed Federal authorities to bar a farmer from growing “excess” wheat even though he would not be selling it and would solely be using it for personal use on his farm. The Court reasoned that this was acceptable because the farmer’s actions had an impact on Interstate Commerce, even though it might only be a small one. It’s a decision that has always aroused the ire of advocates of limited government and it’s implications are wide ranging. Thanks to Wickard, the Court spent some 50 years rubber stamping Federal assertions of authority under the Commerce Clause. Indeed, after the New Deal Era there were very few challenges to such laws that even made it to the Supreme Court.

Then, in the late 90s things took a surprising change. In Morrison v. United States, the Court struck down several provisions of the Violence Against Women Act which purported to make domestic violence a matter for federal law enforcement under certain circumstances. The Court held that there was no evidence that domestic violence had any connection at all to interstate commerce that would justify giving the Feds police authority that is properly the authority of state governments. Several years later, in Lopez v. United States, the Court struck down the Gun Free School Zones Act on the ground that there was not a sufficient nexus with interstate commerce. Suddenly, it seemed, the Court was finding limits to the Commerce power. There seemed to be a setback when the Court upheld Federal drug charges against a California medical marijuana dealer in Gonalez v. Raich, but there’s a good argument to be made that this case is distinguishable based on the fact that it dealt with illegal drugs and that the Court was unwilling to issue a ruling that would have thrown every single Federal drug law into Constitutional doubt. Had Gonzalez dealt with any other commodity, it’s quite conceivable that it would have gone the other way.

It’s been said by PPACA advocates that striking down the mandate would require the Court to overrule 70 years of Commerce Clause precedent, but Morrison, Lopez and even Raich, show that this isn’t necessarily true. Each of the courts that have struck down the mandate have held that the problem with the mandate isn’t that the Courts have been wrong for the past three-quarters of a century about the Commerce Clause, but that even those precedents do not authorize what Congress wishes to do in this particular case. Indeed, it is perfectly easy to distinguish Wickard and its progeny from the PPACA mandate in a way that preserves precedent and yet compels the conclusion that the mandate is a Constitutional bridge too far.

This is what I expect the Supreme Court to do when it issues its opinion in June. Much to the relief of liberals and the chagrin of conservatives, striking down the individual mandate will not mean that the New Deal will be rolled back. What it will mean, though, is that, as in Lopez and Morrison, the Court will be drawing a line and saying that Congress cannot cross it because it does not have the Constitutional authority to do so. It will, in other words, further articulate a limiting principle for the Commerce Clause.

Which brings me to the next part of Brad’s argument I need to address.

Limiting Principles

Brad is correct that the Court could construct a limiting principle if it ends up saying that the mandate is Constitutional. Perhaps this is what it will end up doing. However, it is worth understanding the importance of the failure of the Government to articulate a limiting principle when asked for one by the Court. For one thing, this isn’t the first time that the Court has failed to do so. Reviewing the transcripts of oral argument in many of the lower court proceedings, one runs into other occasions when Judges inquired of the attorneys for the Government whether they believed that there was any limit on the Commerce Power given their arguments in favor of the mandate. In no case were the attorneys willing or able to do so. In some cases, this was cited by Judges as a reason that the mandate cannot be upheld, in others it wasn’t (athough it is worth noting that lower Court judges are bound by precedent from the Supreme Court in a manner that Supreme Court Justices are not).

As a purely tactical matter, it strikes me that an attorney who is unable to provide an answer when a Judge asks “If I rule in your favor, what guarantee is there that I won’t be establishing a precedent to do X” is potentially damaging their case. Most judges are not, by their nature, radicals.Meaning that if they can avoid issuing an opinion that could have far reaching consequences they are likely to do so. It was quite evident from the questioning during last week’s oral argument over the individual mandate that the Court, and specifically Justice Kennedy, has some concerns about the future implications of issuing an opinion upholding the mandate. The Solicitor General’s failure to provide an answer may end up being fatal to the Government’s case.

The Necessary And Proper Clause

This is perhaps the strongest argument that Brad raises. Under the broadest interpretation of the Supreme Court precedents on this case, anything that is necessary for Congress to carry out one of it’s authorized powers is Constitutional. Indeed, this is pretty much what the Supreme Court said when it authorized the creation of the First Bank Of  The United States in McCullough v. Maryland. For that reason alone, it’s interesting that there was so little discussion of the necessary and proper clause during the oral argument last week. Partly, this may be because the law here is pretty much settled and has been for nearly two centuries but one would have thought that Paul Clement, the attorney for the states would have been subjected to some strong questioning on this topic by the Justices on this issue. He really wasn’t, although there was some discussion about whether the health care market was “unique” in some way that made this mandate permissible.

The problem with this argument that it still leaves the Court searching for a limiting principle. If Congressional power under the Commerce Clause to regulate the interstate health care/health insurance market is so broad that it can enact a law that includes a requirement that all Americans purchase insurance, then does that mean that its power to regulate the interstate automobile market is so broad that it can enact a law requiring Americans to buy only American made cars? Even if the Court were to decide that the Necessary and Proper Clause was sufficient authorization for the mandate, it would still be left with the limiting principle question. And my reading of the Court at this time is that there is a majority right now that is unwilling to issue an opinion that would essentially be an open door to Congressional intrusion in even more aspects of the economy, and an end to any hope that there could be limits imposed on Washington, D.C.

Conclusion

I could end up being totally wrong about this, of course. This case is so closely dividing the Court that it’s impossible to guess how it will turn out. I will say that I think that if the mandate is struck down we are looking at a 5-4 decision because there is just no way that I can see Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, or Kagan going over to the side of the conservatives on this issue. However, if the mandate is upheld I would not be surprised to see it be a 6-3 decision for a very specific reason. Ordinarily, the most senior Justice in the majority gets to decide who writes the majority opinion. However, if the Chief Justice is in the majority he gets to make that decision. If Kennedy ends up voting to uphold the mandate then I could see Chief Justice Roberts joining him so that he can write the opinion himself and make the precedential value of the decision as limited as possible.

However, if the Court were to strike down the mandate, I believe I’ve laid out a perfectly rational, Constitutional basis on which they would do so. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a political firestorm, of course, but there is going to be a political firestorm no matter how the Court rules. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in American history when such an important case was in the hands of the Court in the same year as a Presidential election. Especially an election where the very issue the Court is dealing with, the limitations on the authority of the state contained in the Constitution, were also the central issue in the Presidential election. It’s going to be a very interesting opinion regardless of which way it comes down.

Point: How The Supreme Court Will Find The Individual Mandate Constitutional

This is part of The Liberty Papers’ continuing Point/Counterpoint series, where two contributors (or a contributor and a guest) argue competing sides of an issue. In this installment, I will argue that the Supreme Court has a realistic defensible argument to find the Individual Mandate in ObamaCare Constitutional. Tomorrow, Doug Mataconis will respond with a rebuttal. Links will be updated in each post as they appear.

UPDATE 4/4: Doug’s rebuttal is available here.

As always, we’re constantly looking for good debate topics for this series, and qualified guest posters to argue one side against one of the contributors.

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Stipulated up front — I believe that ObamaCare is a severe affront to individual rights, limited government, and the ideals upon which our Republic was founded. In my own view of Constitutional jurisprudence, overturning the law is a no brainer. But as with most things our government does, they’re not listening to me, so the question is simple:

Does the Supreme Court have enough precedent to find the individual mandate Constitutional?

I think they do. And the argument has several elements.

Forcing You To Act

One of the first points of contention is the question of regulating activity versus regulating inactivity. The question being whether or not the Congress can force you to act if you choose not to. Many claim that Congress forcing you to purchase a good from a private seller is a bridge farther than they’ve ever gone before.

But taking the question of “buying from a private seller” out of the equation, is anyone suggesting that the government can’t force you to do something under threat of fine or jail? Ever heard of the Selective Service? I’d say a government that can force me to report for military service to die for my country is asking something a fair bit more serious than demanding I have health insurance. The government in this case can COMPEL you to do something within its rightful power — the power to raise armies. Or on a subject less likely to result in ending up full of lead, there’s Federal jury service. The government can COMPEL you to do something within its rightful power — the power to raise courts and ensure defendants a fair trial judged by their peers.

The question isn’t whether or not the government can force you to do something — Republicans, Democrats, Presidents, and Supreme Court Justices have all agreed that it can. The question is whether or not forcing you to buy health insurance falls within the power of what they can force you to do.

The Commerce Clause

Most of the debate so far has centered around whether the mandate — a regulation of inactivity, not of activity, is within Congress’ commerce clause power. We’ve had cases like Wickard v. Filburn, where the Court has ruled that someones activity can be regulated whether or not it directly engages in interstate commerce, because the act of growing your own wheat [and not buying it from the market] may have an affect on interstate commerce. We’ve even had Gonzales v. Raich, where the Court has ruled that the grasp of Congress extends even to activities which affect an interstate market in goods the government would prefer have no market at all.

The Government’s lawyers in this case say that the mandate is Constitutional because not buying insurance may affect interstate commerce. The opposition states that Congress can regulate activity related to interstate commerce, but regulating inactivity is a bridge too far. Supporters of ObamaCare, however, do have a point here. It can hardly be argued that refusing to purchase health insurance means that you’re not impacting the US healthcare system. Unless you have an ironclad “do not treat” waiver stapled to your forehead at all times, I’m pretty certain that if you’re in a car wreck and unconscious, you’re going to become a participant in the healthcare market. And if you don’t have insurance, that’s likely to bankrupt you, cost the taxpayer a hefty sum, or both. In this case, your supposed inactivity really is activity.

But this isn’t the only argument. One of the key points that is not argued is whether or not the US Congress has the authority to regulate the US Healthcare market at all. And the reason that’s not being argued is that it’s flatly assumed that Congress can regulate the healthcare market. In fact, even most pro-liberty Constitutionalists agree that if Congress had simply voted for a single-payer system, current Supreme Court jurisprudence wouldn’t have any cause to overturn it. So this brings us to our next point:

The Necessary and Proper Clause

This is really the crux. The clause says that Congress has power to make all laws “necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States.” A long time ago, that limited the government significantly. In fact, in the fight over the First Bank of The United States, the Feds argued that the Bank was necessary to engage in all the things that the government legitimately and Constitutionally needed to do. The opponents argued that while the Bank may be convenient and helpful to the government to do what it needs to do, it was hardly necessary. They took a very strong view that the word “necessary” meant what it said — if you could accomplish the goal without doing X, then X didn’t meet the Constitutional requirement of necessity.

Sadly, the Necessary & Proper clause was one of the first to get ignored by the Supreme Court, as Randy Barnett (a lawyer opposing ObamaCare in this case) pointed out in his book Restoring the Lost Constitution. One of the key growths in Government power over the early days of the Republic was to grant deference to Government lawyers if they said something was necessary.

In this case, much of the oral arguments centered around whether ObamaCare could stand without the individual mandate. Both sides agreed that Congress has the power to regulate healthcare, but they didn’t agree that the individual mandate was, on its own, Constitutional. After all, if they can mandate you purchase insurance, which might help restrain the growth of healthcare costs, might they not also mandate you purchase broccoli, as the health effects thereof might help restrain the growth of healthcare costs?

Many ObamaCare opponents cheered at the lines of questioning whether ruling the mandate Unconstitutional would cause the entire law to fall. Those opponents believed that it was a way for the Court’s conservative wing to ensure that they could toss out the whole law, rather than simply severing the mandate. But looking at the argument another way, it proves that the mandate is necessary to the law.

So let’s look at the “necessary and proper” test. First is propriety — laws made by Congress are only proper if they relate to one of its Constitutional powers. While I might not think Congress has legitimate authority to make sweeping healthcare legislation, I think we’ve well established that current Court jurisprudence is untroubled by the idea that Congress has commerce clause power to regulate healthcare. So the test of propriety is cleared. The second is necessity: is the mandate necessary to fulfill Congress’ authority to regulate the interstate commerce of healthcare. And I think the oral arguments proved, regardless of what side you’re on in this debate, that the mandate is absolutely necessary to the structure of the law. Get rid of the mandate, and you might as well throw the whole thing out.

So if regulating the healthcare market is a legitimate authority of Congress, within their purview granted by the commerce clause, then the question becomes whether this mandate is necessary for them to exercise their authority. I think the answer, as shown by oral argument, is yes. So the government clears the bars of both the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper clause.

Limiting Principles

A final argument by the opponents has been that if the mandate stands, it grants Congress ultimate power, which the Court will not allow to happen. And they’ve been encouraged by some lines of questioning in oral argument, where the “broccoli test” showed that the Government’s lawyers were unable to articulate a limiting principle of their argument.

But as loath as I am to agree with Kevin Drum on something (or whoever he borrowed the argument from), the Government doesn’t need to articulate a limiting principle. It’s up to the Court to determine whether THIS action is Constitutional. And they could very easily craft a limiting principle that allows the individual insurance mandate but doesn’t allow for an individual broccoli mandate.

How simple is it?

Q. Is the individual insurance mandate absolutely necessary to the very structure of Obamacare?
A. Yes.
Q. Is the hypothetical broccoli mandate absolutely necessary to the very structure of Obamacare?
A. No. Are you f’ing serious?

The Court already has the “necessary & proper” clause as its limiting principle. If they accept the basic structure of ObamaCare as Constitutional, extending to Congress a provision that might be Unconstitutional on its own, but necessary as part of a wider power, would not be a shock.

Conclusion

I’m not going to claim that the above argument suggests that the Court will find ObamaCare Constitutional. I’m a firm believer in the idea that the Justices often decide — like people in all other walks of life — what they want to do and rationalize an argument into it afterwards. And I think we have a pretty decent idea how 8 of the 9 Justices will decide in this case, a 4-4 tie broken by Anthony Kennedy.

Should Kennedy vote to overturn the mandate, I expect the majority opinion to fall to one of the solid conservative justices. Should Kennedy vote to uphold, he very well might pen the majority opinion. For Kennedy to accept the mandate, I think he has to see a legitimate limiting principle — and the necessary & proper clause provides both the grounds for upholding the mandate and the inklings of a limiting principle in one fell swoop. Oh, and in case you followed the oral arguments, Kennedy was *very* interested in the concept of severability and seemed to assume, whether he votes to keep it or toss it, that the mandate was necessary to the structure.

I don’t know which way this thing’s gonna go, but I’m not as confident as other libertarians, conservatives, and small-government Constitutionalists. I see a very plausible rationale for upholding it, and thus I think we’re hoping that one oft-flighty Justice happens to come down on our side of the vote.

Montana Firearms Freedom Act: Tilting At Windmills

While I laud any state trying to expand the freedom of its residents while simultaneously thumbing it’s nose at Washington, I can’t see this ending well:

On October 1, 2009, Montana passed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act, the purpose of which was to regulate guns manufactured and kept within Montana state lines under a less restrictive regulatory regime than federal law provides. That same day, to ensure that Montanans could enjoy the benefits of this less restrictive state regulation, the Montana Shooting Sports Association filed a declaratory judgment claim in federal court.

The lawsuit’s importance is not limited to Montana, as seven other states have passed laws similar to the MFFA and 20 states have introduced such legislation. The goal here is to reinforce state regulatory authority over commerce that is by definition intrastate, to take back some of the ground occupied by modern Commerce Clause jurisprudence.

The district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, however, and MSSA appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Now on appeal, Cato has joined the Goldwater Institute to file an amicus brief supporting the MSSA and arguing that federal power does not preempt Montana’s ability to exercise its sovereign police powers to facilitate the exercise of individual rights protected by the Second and Ninth Amendments. More specifically, for federal law to trump the MFFA, the government must claim that the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses give it the power to regulate wholly intrastate manufacture, sale, and possession of guns, which MSSA argues is a state-specific market distinct from any related national one.

The general question here is whether modern Commerce Clause jurisprudence should be upended for this case. I believe it should, but I believe it won’t. The manufacture/sale/possession of firearms, while declared to be purely intrastate matters, would seem to “substantially affect” interstate commerce in the same way as the Court found in Wickard & Raich. On the question of whether the activity affects interstate commerce, I don’t think there can be any debate should current Commerce Clause jurisprudence hold. Under such jurisprudence, the Feds can reasonably claim that their more stringent requirements for firearms is Necessary to effectively regulate firearms in an interstate manner.

The actual brief (linked above) submitted by Goldwater & Cato draws more narrow inferences than the quoted text above, however. They recognize the current precedent of Wickard & Raich, but push a state sovereignty angle which seems much more substantial. The argument seems to be that in areas traditionally regulated at the state level, rather than the federal level, and where the state action is protecting individual liberty rather than restricting it (i.e. no 14th amendment privileges & immunities issues here), the level of scrutiny required by the Feds to override State law should be significantly higher. However, I suspect that such efforts will still either fall short, or require Supreme Court gymnastics to carve out a VERY narrow exception here (i.e. emanations & penumbra gymnastics).

It’s telling that one of the cases used as justification here is a case [Massachusetts v. Sebelius] where Massachusetts argued against the DOMA, on the grounds that Massachusetts more libertarian law upholding same-sex unions was infringed upon by DOMA. Effectively DOMA made it impossible for certain federally-funded programs which would traditionally go to “married” couples (or survivors thereof) could not be extended to same-sex couples. Because the regulation of marriage was traditionally within the purview of the States, not the Feds, and because DOMA violated the State’s liberty-protecting equal protection clause within the Massachusetts Constitution, for the Congress to intervene here was shown to be a violation of Massachusetts sovereignty.

However, I don’t think the Massachusetts case will be applicable here. While it is traditionally the purview of the States to regulate marriage, I don’t think it can be shown here that Massachusetts recognition of same-sex marriage substantially affects interstate commerce. The portion of DOMA that would have protected states from being forced to recognize same-sex marriages from other states was also not at issue. While it might be within the general police powers of the States to regulate some aspects of firearms manufacture/sale/ownership, I believe the Court would find the Commerce Clause precedent more binding than a finding of state sovereignty.

Another aspect of the state sovereignty argument appears in section I-A of the brief [p7-11]. Several points are raised:

  • That the Federal government cannot force a State legislature to legislate as directed by the Feds. In this case, I don’t believe the point applies, as the Feds are not demanding the States implement this regulation for them, but rather declaring such regulation to be a Federal matter to be decided by Congress rather than the States.
  • That the Federal government cannot commandeer State resources for the execution of federal regulation. Again, they are not forcing State police to enforce a more strict version of firearms regulation, and various drug decriminalization (and State medical marijuana initiatives) have created a situation where, while a State may [unconstitutionally] declare certain activities legal that the Federal government deems illegal, the States are within their rights to limit the use of State resources for investigation and prosecution of Federal crimes that they deem unwieldy. California can simultaneously hold the position that while medical marijuana is Federally illegal, the State does not consider it criminal, and thus the Feds themselves must enforce it if they so choose.
  • That the Federal government may not regulate/criminalize wholly intrastate activities with no economic impact. I think Commerce Clause jurisprudence would suggest that manufacture/sale/possession of weapons cannot be shown to be wholly intrastate, and it certainly includes economic impact.
  • Finally, that the Federal government may not subject State government employees to the dictates or working regulations of the Federal government — I think this one is so far removed from the case at hand to not warrant discussion.

To argue that this is a matter of state sovereignty is to argue that regulations of firearms has been a long-standing matter of the states themselves, and that for the Federal government to step in and demand more stringent regulation under Commerce Clause grounds requires such heightened scrutiny that cannot be supported here. However, Federal firearms laws have been in force since 1934, and while this is not proof that the regulation of firearm manufacture/sale/ownership should be a Federal matter, it certainly cuts some strength from the argument that this is purely a matter of state sovereignty.

It seems to me that this lawsuit is a bit of a hail mary. For it to succeed, we would need to see a sea-change in Commerce Clause jurisprudence (almost impossibly unlikely), or for the Brady Bill and/or National Firearms Act to be struck down as Unconstitutional (because both would infringe on state sovereignty). A greater likelihood, based on current conservative makeup of the court, would be a VERY narrowly worded decision involving some legal gymnastics. However, given the deference to Federal power I’ve seen from Roberts & Alito, and given that they would need such a narrow crafting to ensure that they wouldn’t open up whole hosts of other State sovereignty challenges to Federal law, I don’t see much likelihood there. Fundamentally the plaintiffs are pushing for a general large change in Federal/State interaction, one which I doubt the Supreme Court is ready to uphold.

Of course, that’s all assuming it ever makes it to the Supreme Court, itself an unlikely prospect.

While I have great sympathy for the plaintiffs here, I can’t say I’d be laying strong odds on their success.
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South Dakota Lawmakers Confused By Federal/State Distinction — Embarrass Selves

[shakes head]

A group of South Dakota lawmakers has introduced a bill that would require almost everyone in their state to buy a gun once they turn 21.

Turns out it’s not a serious attempt. Rather, the lawmakers are trying to make a point about the new health care law — that an individual mandate is unconstitutional, whether it requires everyone to buy health insurance or, in South Dakota’s case, a firearm.

Rep. Hal Wick, one of five co-sponsors, told The Argus Leader newspaper that he expects the bill to fail.

“Do I or the other co-sponsors believe that the state of South Dakota can require citizens to buy firearms? Of course not. But at the same time, we do not believe the federal government can order every citizen to buy health insurance,” he said.

The town of Kennesaw, GA mandates that every resident own a gun. The State of Massachusetts mandates that every resident purchase health insurance. Neither of those mandates caused a US Constitutional crisis. How in the world is the proposed South Dakota gun mandate in any different?

In truth, it’s not. We have long placed certain actions within the purview of State power that would be unconstitutional if done federally. It is only blatant misreading of the commerce clause that has allowed the Feds to infringe as far as they have.

Yet these dolts think that trying to enact a STATE mandate is somehow logically analogous to fighting a federal mandate. As if nobody had heard of MassCare or nobody had drawn up the suggestion that states have the power to require car insurance but may be* unconstitutional to mandate at the Federal level. They, by their words above, do not even seem to grasp the distinction between Article I, Section 8’s enumeration of powers at the Federal level and the fact that States are held to a different [lower] standard.

I can only see two reasons for this:

  1. They really ARE this dumb.
  2. This is all just one big publicity stunt.

The former suggests that the voters of South Dakota shouldn’t be trusted at the ballot any further, as they clearly can’t elect people capable of behaving responsibly in office. The latter suggests that the politicians just happen to believe that the voters of South Dakota [and writers for Fox News] are so dumb that they can’t tell the difference between State and Federal actions. Either way, it’s one more example that democracy doesn’t work.
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Will The Supreme Court Strike Down ObamaCare ? Don’t Be So Quick To Say Yes

The New York Times’ long-time SCOTUS reporter Linda Greenhouse takes a look at how the current court might look at the challenges to the health care reform law:

The challengers invoke and seek to build upon the Rehnquist court’s “federalism revolution” that flowered briefly during the 1990’s. In a series of 5-to-4 rulings, the court took a view of Congressional authority that was narrower than at any time since the early New Deal. The court struck down a federal law that barred guns near schools, on the ground that possession of a gun near a school was not the type of activity that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause authorized Congress to regulate. It ruled that Congress could not require states to give their employees the protections of the federal laws against discrimination on the basis of age or disability. It ruled that the federal government couldn’t “commandeer” state officials to perform federal functions like federally mandated background checks of gun purchasers.

As Greenhouse points out, though, the Roberts Court is very, very different from the 1990s Rehnquist Court when it comes to issues regarding the power of the Federal Government:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is not William Rehnquist, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. is not Sandra Day O’Connor. John Roberts has made his career inside the Beltway ever since coming to Washington to clerk for Rehnquist. As for Sam Alito, I don’t believe that apart from a brief part-time gig as an adjunct law professor, this former federal prosecutor, Justice Department lawyer and federal judge has cashed a paycheck in his adult life that wasn’t issued by the federal government. Nothing in their backgrounds or in their jurisprudence so far indicates that they are about to sign up with either the Sagebrush Rebellion or the Tea Party.

Chief Justice Roberts appears particularly in tune with the exercise of national power. One of his handful of major dissenting opinions came in the 2007 case of Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which the court ordered the federal agency to regulate global warming or give a science-based explanation for its refusal to do so. That case was brought by a group of coastal states, which argued that climate change was lapping at their borders. Chief Justice Roberts objected that the states should not have been accorded standing to pursue their lawsuit. He denounced the “special solicitude” that the court’s majority showed the state plaintiffs. An early Roberts dissenting vote, just months into his first term, came in Gonzales v. Oregon, a 6-to-3 decision rejecting the United States attorney general’s effort to prevent doctors in Oregon from cooperating with that state’s assisted-suicide law.

And, as Damon Root points out, Antonin Scalia can’t be trusted on this issue either:

It’s also worth noting that conservative Justice Antonin Scalia did his part to thwart that “federalism revolution” by siding with the majority in 2005’s disastrous Gonzales v. Raich, which held that the intrastate cultivation and consumption of marijuana somehow still counted as interstate commerce, resulting in the Court striking down California’s popular medical marijuana law.

I noted last week that, as a matter of law, the odds are against the cases challenging the health care law. As Greenhouse and Root demonstrate, it also appears that we’re dealing with a Supreme Court that is not at all inclined to be sympathetic to arguments that limit the power of Congress.

Right now, I would say that the only vote that could probably be counted on to declare ObamaCare unconstitutional is Clarence Thomas’.

Thirteen States File Suit Against ObamaCare

Well, that didn’t take long:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Attorneys general from 13 states sued the federal government Tuesday, claiming the landmark health care overhaul bill is unconstitutional just seven minutes after President Barack Obama signed it into law.

The lawsuit was filed in Pensacola after the Democratic president signed the bill the House passed Sunday night.

“The Constitution nowhere authorizes the United States to mandate, either directly or under threat of penalty, that all citizens and legal residents have qualifying health care coverage,” the lawsuit says.

Legal experts say it has little chance of succeeding because, under the Constitution, federal laws trump state laws.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is taking the lead and is joined by attorneys general from South Carolina, Nebraska, Texas, Michigan, Utah, Pennsylvania, Alabama, South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Colorado and Louisiana. All are Republicans except James “Buddy” Caldwell of Louisiana, who is a Democrat.

Some states are considering separate lawsuits and still others may join the multistate suit.

I assume we will hear that Ken Cuccinelli has filed suit in the Eastern District of Virginia before the day is out.

As I’ve said, I am not optimistic about the ultimate outcome in these cases, but it will be interesting to watch them proceed through the system.

Here is the pleading itself:

Attorneys General suit on health care

Update: Make that fourteen states, Ken Cuccinelli has filed suit on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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

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.

Lawsuits Await As ObamaCare Passes

Shortly, ObamaCare will be the law of the land, then the next round in the battle begins:

WASHINGTON — The battle over health care is poised to move swiftly from Congress back to the country as Democrats, Republicans and a battery of interest groups race to define the legislation and dig in for long-term political and legal fights.

President Obama plans to open a new campaign this week to persuade skeptical Americans that the bill holds immediate benefits for them and addresses the nation’s shaky fiscal condition. Republicans said they would seek to repeal the measure, challenge its constitutionality and coordinate efforts in statehouses to block its implementation.

The politics of health care are fragile — and far from certain — in the eight-month midterm campaign that will determine which party will control Congress next year. But both sides steeled for a fight to extend well beyond November, involving state legislative battles, court challenges and, ultimately, the next presidential race.

Even before the final vote, Republicans began relentlessly assailing lawmakers who supported the legislation, suggesting Democrats are spendthrift and proponents of big government. Democrats said they would seek to capitalize on the momentum from their success and strive to move beyond the political arguments in hopes of demystifying the complicated legislation.

“We ought to focus on not the political stakes, but the stakes for the country,” David Plouffe, an adviser to Mr. Obama, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We’re going to go out there and not just talk about what we’re for, but what the Republicans are voting against.”

The next chapter in the health care fight will play out not only in the midterm elections, but also in the courts.

Already three state Attorneys General have announced their intention to file suit as soon as the bill becomes a law.

Virginia:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Less than eight hours after Congress passed sweeping healthcare reforms, Virginia’s Attorney General became the first to announce a legal challenge against it.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli said early Monday that he will file a court challenge against what he and other conservatives decry as an unconstitutional overreach of federal authority.

Cuccinelli said he would file the lawsuit as soon as President Barack Obama signs the bill passed Sunday night into law.

South Carolina:

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster is again promising a legal challenge of the health care reform measure passed by the U.S. House.

McMaster issued a statement late Sunday calling the health care legislation “clearly unconstitutional.”

(…)

He says he took part in a conference call Sunday night and expects attorneys general in nine other states to join the challenge.”

And, Florida:

ORLANDO, FL — Moments after Congress voted to approve President Obama’s health care legislation, Florida’s Attorney General announced he will file a lawsuit to declare the bill unconstitutional.

Bill McCollum will join Attorneys General from South Carolina, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Pennsylvania, Washington, North Dakota and South Dakota to file a lawsuit against the federal government.

“The health care reform legislation passed by the U. S. House of Representatives this evening clearly violates the U.S. Constitution and infringes on each state’s sovereignty,” McCollum said in a statement distributed late Sunday night.

“If the President signs this bill into law, we will file a lawsuit to protect the rights and the interests of American citizens.”

More to come, I’m sure.

ObamaCare, The Constitution, And The Next Round In The Health Care Wars

The Constitutionality of ObamaCare is apparently a subject that neither Nancy Pelosi, nor any other Member of Congress has given any consideration to. In today’s Washington Post, however, Law Professor Randy Barnett takes a look at the probable Constitutional challenges to the health care bill:

Can Congress really require that every person purchase health insurance from a private company or face a penalty? The answer lies in the commerce clause of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states.” Historically, insurance contracts were not considered commerce, which referred to trade and carriage of merchandise. That’s why insurance has traditionally been regulated by states. But the Supreme Court has long allowed Congress to regulate and prohibit all sorts of “economic” activities that are not, strictly speaking, commerce. The key is that those activities substantially affect interstate commerce, and that’s how the court would probably view the regulation of health insurance.

But the individual mandate extends the commerce clause’s power beyond economic activity, to economic inactivity. That is unprecedented. While Congress has used its taxing power to fund Social Security and Medicare, never before has it used its commerce power to mandate that an individual person engage in an economic transaction with a private company. Regulating the auto industry or paying “cash for clunkers” is one thing; making everyone buy a Chevy is quite another. Even during World War II, the federal government did not mandate that individual citizens purchase war bonds.

If you choose to drive a car, then maybe you can be made to buy insurance against the possibility of inflicting harm on others. But making you buy insurance merely because you are alive is a claim of power from which many Americans instinctively shrink. Senate Republicans made this objection, and it was defeated on a party-line vote, but it will return.

As I’ve written before, this may be the one area of the health care bill that it most vulnerable to a Constitutional challenge. Neither the Commerce Clause, nor any other provision of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution would seem to be capable of being read in a reasonable manner so as to grant to Congress the power to force every American man, woman, and child to purchase a produce whether they wanted to or not.

Will the Court’s see it the same way ? That remains to be seen, but there have been signs in recent years that the Supreme Court wants to step back from the overly broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause that we’ve become familiar with:

The Constitution assigns only limited, enumerated powers to Congress and none, including the power to regulate interstate commerce or to impose taxes, would support a federal mandate requiring anyone who is otherwise without health insurance to buy it.

Although the Supreme Court has interpreted Congress’s commerce power expansively, this type of mandate would not pass muster even under the most aggressive commerce clause cases. In Wickard v. Filburn (1942), the court upheld a federal law regulating the national wheat markets. The law was drawn so broadly that wheat grown for consumption on individual farms also was regulated. Even though this rule reached purely local (rather than interstate) activity, the court reasoned that the consumption of homegrown wheat by individual farms would, in the aggregate, have a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce, and so was within Congress’s reach.

The court reaffirmed this rationale in 2005 in Gonzales v. Raich, when it validated Congress’s authority to regulate the home cultivation of marijuana for personal use. In doing so, however, the justices emphasized that — as in the wheat case — “the activities regulated by the [Controlled Substances Act] are quintessentially economic.” That simply would not be true with regard to an individual health insurance mandate.

The otherwise uninsured would be required to buy coverage, not because they were even tangentially engaged in the “production, distribution or consumption of commodities,” but for no other reason than that people without health insurance exist. The federal government does not have the power to regulate Americans simply because they are there. Significantly, in two key cases, United States v. Lopez (1995) and United States v. Morrison (2000), the Supreme Court specifically rejected the proposition that the commerce clause allowed Congress to regulate noneconomic activities merely because, through a chain of causal effects, they might have an economic impact. These decisions reflect judicial recognition that the commerce clause is not infinitely elastic and that, by enumerating its powers, the framers denied Congress the type of general police power that is freely exercised by the states.

So, this is as not nearly as much of a long-shot argument as it might have been twenty or thirty years ago.

Barnett concludes:

Ultimately, there are three ways to think about whether a law is constitutional: Does it conflict with what the Constitution says? Does it conflict with what the Supreme Court has said? Will five justices accept a particular argument? Although the first three of the potential constitutional challenges to health-care reform have a sound basis in the text of the Constitution, and no Supreme Court precedents clearly bar their success, the smart money says there won’t be five votes to thwart the popular will to enact comprehensive health insurance reform.

But what if five justices think the legislation was carried bleeding across the finish line on a party-line vote over widespread bipartisan opposition? What if control of one or both houses of Congress flips parties while lawsuits are pending? Then there might just be five votes against regulating inactivity by compelling citizens to enter into a contract with a private company. This legislation won’t go into effect tomorrow. In the interim, it is far more vulnerable than if some citizens had already started to rely upon its benefits.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider another recent case in which the smart money doubted there were five votes to intervene in a politicized controversy involving technical procedures. A case in which five justices may have perceived that long-established rules were being gamed for purely partisan advantage.

You might have heard of it: Bush v. Gore.

In other worth, even if ObamaCare passes today, the political firestorm isn’t over, and the legal firestorm is just getting started.

On promises made and broken

In the lead up to the vote on H.R. 3962, the “Affordable Health Care for America” Act (scare quotes intentional), Barack Obama offered this encouragement to legislators to vote for the bill:

“This is their moment, this is our moment, to live up to the trust that the American people have placed in us,” Obama told reporters in the White House rose garden. “Even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard, this is our moment to deliver.”

Two-hundred and fifteen did live up to the trust we placed in them, while two-hundred and twenty failed to do the same. How exactly is that trust defined? In the oath of office taken by each and every United States Representative:

“I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Each and every Representative took a solemn oath to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution. Each and every Representative who affirmed the House health care bill, with its threats of fines and prison for not buying “government-approved” health insurance, has forsaken that oath. The mandates contained in the Pelosi bill are a kludge, a poor attempt to graft a clearly unconstitutional power such as this on to the enumerated powers of the commerce clause and taxation.

To attempt such a thing, one cannot bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution. At best, those who attempted this hold the Constitution in the same regard that the 17-year-old script kiddie in his parents’ basement has for security measures–both are interesting challenges that require interesting solutions. At worst, they hold the Constitution in contempt and are actively working to debase the very core of the social contract between the government and the people.

In either case, it is now our turn as patriots to remind our Representatives that while they do not hold themselves to their oaths and promises, we do. In a little less than a year from now, voting booths across this great land will open again, and one of 435 representatives will be seeking your affirmation. If your representative has forsaken his or her oath to the Constitution, withhold it. It’s not about party affiliations or common views, it’s about holding legislators accountable for the promises they make to us.

Do your duty as a patriot. Refuse to support legislators who vote to abuse the Constitution or the People of the United States.

Is An Individual Health Insurance Mandate Constitutional ?

Over at Findlaw, Cornell University Law Professor Michael Dorf criticizes the libertarian argument that a government requirement that every citizen purchase health insurance is unconstitutional:

A federal statute that was already in effect in 1994 provides that “all citizens shall have . . . an obligation to serve as jurors when summoned for that purpose.” To be sure, the mechanisms used to assemble a pool of prospective jurors enable some people to slip through the cracks, but then, that surely would also be true of the individual mandate to obtain health insurance. No law can be perfectly enforced. The important point here is that jury duty, like draft registration, serves as a precedent for the imposition by the federal government of an affirmative duty on citizens.

The difference, of course, between a jury duty mandate or the draft and a law requiring every citizen to purchase health insurance is that both of these obligations of citizens predate the drafting of the Constitution and therefore it’s simply illogical to say that they are barred by the Constitution today, or that the Framer’s contemplated that in allowing the state to compel people to serve on juries, the were opening the door to a whole host of mandates that, if enforced would make freedom a mockery.

Since there doesn’t seem to be much precedent in Federal law, though, Dorf quickly moves on to state law:

Consider that states may impose an affirmative obligation of vaccination on residents. Even in an era when the Supreme Court was otherwise vigorously enforcing libertarian constitutional principles, in 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the Court rejected a constitutional challenge to mandatory vaccination.If the government interest in public health is sufficient to overcome libertarian objections to injections into the very bodies of citizens, then surely the public health interest–which is, at bottom, what is at stake in the health insurance reform bills–should suffice to require Americans to buy health insurance or else pay a tax.

Again, it’s clear that Dorf makes the mistake here of finding an exception and turning into a rule. The important thing to note about Jacobson is that it dealt with mandatory vaccination of children for smallpox which was, until defeated by aggressive vaccination, a highly contagious, virulent disease with a high rate of mortality. Which there is a long argument on both sides of the mandatory vaccination issue, the argument in favor is certainly stronger when it involves combating the spread of a disease that poses such a severe risk to public health when balanced against the individual liberty interest in not getting vaccinated. It’s by no means clear, for example, that the result would be the same if the disease in question were something far less threatening to public health, like the seasonal flu.

Unless Dorf can make the argument that lack of health insurance poses an imminent threat to public health on a par with a smallpox epidemic, the Jacobson precedent would seem inapplicable.

The question of the Constitutionality of a health insurance mandate was addressed in a Washington Post Op-Ed by lawyers David Rivkin and Lee Casey and their argument bears repeating:

The Constitution assigns only limited, enumerated powers to Congress and none, including the power to regulate interstate commerce or to impose taxes, would support a federal mandate requiring anyone who is otherwise without health insurance to buy it.

Although the Supreme Court has interpreted Congress’s commerce power expansively, this type of mandate would not pass muster even under the most aggressive commerce clause cases. In Wickard v. Filburn (1942), the court upheld a federal law regulating the national wheat markets. The law was drawn so broadly that wheat grown for consumption on individual farms also was regulated. Even though this rule reached purely local (rather than interstate) activity, the court reasoned that the consumption of homegrown wheat by individual farms would, in the aggregate, have a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce, and so was within Congress’s reach.

The court reaffirmed this rationale in 2005 in Gonzales v. Raich, when it validated Congress’s authority to regulate the home cultivation of marijuana for personal use. In doing so, however, the justices emphasized that — as in the wheat case — “the activities regulated by the [Controlled Substances Act] are quintessentially economic.” That simply would not be true with regard to an individual health insurance mandate.

The otherwise uninsured would be required to buy coverage, not because they were even tangentially engaged in the “production, distribution or consumption of commodities,” but for no other reason than that people without health insurance exist. The federal government does not have the power to regulate Americans simply because they are there. Significantly, in two key cases, United States v. Lopez (1995) and United States v. Morrison (2000), the Supreme Court specifically rejected the proposition that the commerce clause allowed Congress to regulate noneconomic activities merely because, through a chain of causal effects, they might have an economic impact. These decisions reflect judicial recognition that the commerce clause is not infinitely elastic and that, by enumerating its powers, the framers denied Congress the type of general police power that is freely exercised by the states.

That’s the question that Dorf fails to answer — where in Article I Section 8 is Congress authorized to pass this mandate ?

The fact that he doesn’t address it suggests that there isn’t really an answer in the affirmative.

Republican Senator Expresses Support For Mandatory Health Insurance

Former Republican Senator Bill Frist starts out the U.S. News And World Report article in which he comes out in support of a government requirement that each American have health insurance with what can only be described as a fair degree of irony:

I believe in limited government and individual responsibility, cherish the freedom to choose, and generally oppose individual mandates—except where markets fail, individuals suffer, and society pays a hefty price.

Or, to put it another way, I believe in individual government and individual responsibility, cherish the freedom to choose, and generally oppose individual mandates — except when I don’t.

While Frist spends much time in his article talking about the alleged benefits that an individual mandate would bring, he spends no time whatsoever addressing the fundamental issues that need to be talked about if we’re seriously going to pass what amounts to the Health Insurance Industry Subsidization Act of 2009.

First, there’s the issue of why a mandate is necessary. Frist does not address at all the “market failure” that he claims exists which would be remedied by forcing everyone to purchase health insurance. What he does do, though, is reveal what the individual mandate is really all about — forcing young, healthy people who otherwise might choose to forgo the several-hundred-dollars-a-month worth of premiums they’d have to pay:

When healthier people opt not to carry insurance, only those with poorer health, and thus higher costs, remain in. This leads insurance prices to spiral up. And it further impedes markets’ ability to mitigate risks and prevent personal economic catastrophe. The “free-riders” who do not purchase insurance and the “voluntarily uninsured” who depend on emergency room care paid by others would then pay their fair share for services received.

What Frist doesn’t address, of course, is the fact that an individual mandate is likely to create upward pressure on premiums for one very simple reason — once insurance companies know that you have to buy their product whether you want to or not, they have zero incentive to keep premiums down. That’s the reason why, for example, auto insurance rates (which in most states are mandatory if you want to own a car) are higher than most other forms of insurance that individuals typically purchase.

What the individual mandate really does is to force the young and healthy to subsidize the older and sicker. It’s worth noting that hat’s the same logic that Social Security and Medicare are built on, and they’re in the process of going into an demographically inevitable bankruptcy. One can foresee much the same thing happening under an individual-mandate health scenario.

First goes on to cite Massachusetts as an example of an individual mandate plan that “works,” but that isn’t necessarily true:

The Massachusetts experiment with the same scheme has left the state with the nation’s most expensive insurance, with program spending up 70 percent in just three years and with a third of the uninsured remaining so. The cheapest insurance we can find in Massachusetts for an average family of four is $906 per month. In Iowa, it’s $145. Different coverage, certainly, but at least in Iowa cheaper coverage choices exist.

That’s what could come to America if we adopt the individual mandate.

Frist also fails to address a more important issue — what right does the Federal Government have to force me or you to buy health insurance ? I don’t just mean to ask what Constitutional provision authorizes it, although that is certainly important, but also why should the government be allowed to do this at all, even if it technically had the power to do so ? As a Republican who claims to “believe in limited government and individual responsibility, cherish the freedom to choose, and generally oppose individual mandates,” that’s a question that should be relatively easy for Frist to answer.

His silence, and the silence of other Republicans, is deafening.

Updated to reflect my failure to note that Frist is in fact a former Republican Senator

Are Health Insurance Mandates Constitutional ?

After a piece last month in the Washington Post, which I wrote about here, lawyers David Rivkin and Lee Casey are back with a piece in the Wall Street Journal expanding on their argument that a requirement that every American buy health insurance would be unconstitutional. This time, they argue that, even under current commerce clause precedent, there is no Constitutional authority for a Federal health insurance mandate:

The Supreme Court construes the commerce power broadly. In the most recent Commerce Clause case, Gonzales v. Raich (2005) , the court ruled that Congress can even regulate the cultivation of marijuana for personal use so long as there is a rational basis to believe that such “activities, taken in the aggregate, substantially affect interstate commerce.”

But there are important limits. In United States v. Lopez (1995), for example, the Court invalidated the Gun Free School Zones Act because that law made it a crime simply to possess a gun near a school. It did not “regulate any economic activity and did not contain any requirement that the possession of a gun have any connection to past interstate activity or a predictable impact on future commercial activity.” Of course, a health-care mandate would not regulate any “activity,” such as employment or growing pot in the bathroom, at all. Simply being an American would trigger it.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution sets forth Congresses commerce power:

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

Strictly construed the Commerce Clause would not seem to be that broad of a grant of power. After all, the chief ill that it was aimed at was to allow goods and business to flow easily between the respective states, something that was not possible under the Articles of Confederation. However, the Supreme Court has interpreted the clause so loosely that it has gone far beyond the point where it actually imposed any limits on Congressional authority. For example, in 1942, in Wickard v. Filburn, the Supreme Court ruled that a farmer who grew wheat on his own land for his own consumption affected interstate commerce and was therefore subject to the regulations of Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. Once that happened, the door was open to allow Congress to use the Commerce Clause to justify extensions of Federal power into areas that the Founding Fathers would never have conceived it would be exercised.

The post-Wickard history of the Commerce Clause has been one of expanding federal power and increasing regulation of activities that have only a tangential relationship to interstate commerce. But there have been some bright spots recently.

As the article notes, in 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Lopez that the commerce clause could not be used to justify a Federal Law that made it a crime to carry a gun with a certain distance from a school. In 1996, it ruled in Seminole Tribe v. Florida, that the Commerce Clause did not give the Federal Government the right to abrogate the soverign immunity of the state. And, most notably, in a dissent in Gonzalez v. Raich, the 2005 case that upheld the supremacy of Federal drug laws over state medical marijuana laws, Justice Thomas said the following:

Respondent’s local cultivation and consumption of marijuana is not “Commerce … among the several States.”
Certainly no evidence from the founding suggests that “commerce” included the mere possession of a good or some personal activity that did not involve trade or exchange for value. In the early days of the Republic, it would have been unthinkable that Congress could prohibit the local cultivation, possession, and consumption of marijuana.

Given this trend, the a Constitutional challenge to an individual mandate would seem to be a potentially successful argument. However, as Eugene Volokh pointed out in a post responding to the original WaPo article, that isn’t necessarily the case:

As much as I oppose the various health care reforms promoted by the Obama Administration and current Congressional leadership (and as much as I would like to see a more restrictive commerce clause jurisprudence), I do not find this argument particularly convincing. While I agree that the recent commerce clause cases hold that Congress may not regulate noneconomic activity, as such, they also state that Congress may reach otherwise unregulable conduct as part of an overarching regulatory scheme, where the regulation of such conduct is necessary and proper to the success of such scheme. In this case, the overall scheme would involve the regulation of “commerce” as the Supreme Court has defined it for several decades, as it would involve the regulation of health care markets. And the success of such a regulatory scheme would depend upon requiring all to participate. (Among other things, if health care reform requires insurers to issue insurance to all comers, and prohibits refusals for pre-existing conditions, then a mandate is necessary to prevent opportunistic behavior by individuals who simply wait to purchase insurance until they get sick.)

At best then, this would seem to be a very close call and, given almost 200 years of Supreme Court precedent it seems unlikely that a Court would overturn something as far reaching as a health care reform plan — although as the National Recovery Administration learned in 1935, it’s not impossible.

Happy Constitution Day

Constitutionalconvention

Two Hundred Twenty Two years ago in Philadelphia, the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia completed it’s work.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 18, 1787, a Mrs. Powel anxiously awaited the results, and as Benjamin Franklin emerged from the long task now finished, asked him directly: “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic if you can keep it” responded Franklin.

222 years later, Mrs. Powell’s question, and Franklin’s response, remain undecided.

Do yourself a favor — read The Constitution, and then ask whether we’re still following it the way the Founders intended, and whether we’re going to be able to keep the Republic that Franklin was talking about.

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