Category Archives: Commerce Clause

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.

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