New York Times 28-Jun-12: “Supreme Court Lets Health Law Largely Stand.”
I was both wrong and right about the Commerce Clause argument against the individual mandate: wrong that the better argument supports its constitutionality, right that the commerce clause argument is a close call. The Court held that the mandate exceeds Congress’s Commerce Clause power and is not valid under the Necessary and Proper Clause. The Court instead construed the penalty imposed on individuals who do not purchase health insurance to be a valid exercise of Congress’s taxing power. I’ll cheerfully admit I’ve thought little about this argument, mostly because my insight into the Constitution’s taxing provisions is slightly better than my understanding of string theory.
My quick reading of the Court’s syllabus of the opinion showed me that a quick reading of the opinion will not suffice to understand its many components. It’s one of those opinions where I will need to map in a matrix the outcome of each of the issues. That’s not happening this afternoon. The sun is (mostly) out and my individual mandate requires completing my projects and errands.
I’m not sure I’m ready for today’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act–or, more precisely, for the howls and outrage that will arise from whichever side loses the individual mandate argument. I’ve been talking about it with my coffee buddies for the past few years. Most were–are–incredulous that there’s even a question about the ACA’s constitutionality. Of course the federal government can require everyone to buy health insurance! Health insurance is a good thing, like requiring people to wear seat belts, therefore the government can compel us to buy it! (One thing I’ve learned from teaching law for 15 years–most U.S. citizens have the faintest understanding of Federalism.) I believe the better arguments favor upholding it–I think the federal government can use its Commerce Clause powers to require us to buy health insurance because when we don’t buy health insurance we always shift our health care costs to third parties (hospitals, the government, people who do have health insurance), and thus the cumulative effect on interstate commerce of personal decisions not to buy health insurance is substantial–but I also believe there are legitimate, straight-faced arguments one can make against the law. (Not a popular position in the liberal circles I frequent or media I consume.)
Despite what pundits and Supreme Court justices say, decisions like this are not about applying objective rules, about “calling balls and strikes.” Indeed it’s to our national shame that Congress and the press didn’t call Chief Justice Roberts on this fallacious metaphor during his confirmation hearings. The strike zone is not objective. Umpires do not interpret it uniformly. The best baseball players can hope for is that the plate ump applies the strike zone consistently during a game. It is the job of Supreme Court justices to interpret and apply constitutional principles, which requires making policy decisions about the relationship between the government and the governed. That’s not being an activist judge; it’s being a Supreme Court judge. It’s inevitable that a justice’s political views will shape his or her interpretation of the Constitution. The best we can hope for is that a justice’s decisions are governed by consistent interpretation of constitutional principles, by stare decisis and profound respect for the Rule of Law, and by recognition that the Constitution was intended to be a living document (this rules out Justice Thomas.) There is tremendous tension between these three forces–which is why we lawyers say reasonable people can disagree. Unfortunately, when it comes to the national political discourse reasonable people have been hunted to extinction. I’m not eager for the nasty aftermath of the ACA decision, however it comes down.
The media is filled with articles and reports on this week’s Supreme Court arguments on the Affordable Care Act. This WSJournal article (subscription required) efficiently summarizes the arguments and justices’ questions. Definitions of the relevant economic activity reveal a key distinction between the law’s challengers and supporters–the former focus on the market for health insurance, the latter on the market for health care. The two are obviously connected but the law’s opponents argue that one can be in the market for the latter without being in the market for the former. The media consensus is that the law is in trouble–on CNN Jeffrey Toobin called the Supreme Court session “a train wreck for the Obama administration–and that Justice Kennedy is the key.
Beginning today the Supreme Court is hearing three days of arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The first issue is whether the Court can even consider the law’s constitutionality now–a legalistic argument that in the words of a lawyer challenging the law is “a kind of practical joke that the court is playing on the public.” The 1867 Anti-Injunction Act requires that a tax can only be challenged after it has been paid. The ACA’s penalty–or is it a tax?–for failing to obtain health insurance does not go into effect until 2014 and would not be payable until federal tax returns are filed in 2015, which could mean the challenge must wait. It’s an argument only a lawyer could love, with the twist as to whether the payment imposed for failure to obtain health insurance is a tax. As the NYTimes explains:
In the health care law, Congress called the required payment a penalty rather than a tax. But the penalty is contained in the Internal Revenue Code, and the health care law says it is to be “assessed and collected in the same manner” as a tax.
Mr. Verrilli, representing the Obama administration, walks a fine line. He has told the court that the administration wants a prompt ruling on the health care law and that the 1867 law should not stand in the way. Yet the administration does not want to damage its ability to rely on the 1867 law in other cases.
There are other complications. Mr. Verrilli’s argument that the penalty is not a tax for purposes of the 1867 law is in potential tension with one he will make on Tuesday, that the mandate was authorized not only by Congress’s power under the commerce clause but also by its power to levy taxes.
Mr. Verrilli argues that the name that Congress gave the payment required for violating the mandate in the health care law — a penalty, not a tax — matters for purposes of the 1867 law but is irrelevant in connection with the constitutional taxing power, where “it is the practical operation of the provision, not its label, that controls.” (emphasis additional)
As I said, it’s an argument only a lawyer could love.
Yesterday the New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece by Harvard Law Professor Einer Elhauge arguing for the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act under the commerce and necessary and proper clauses. He concludes that “Congress can mandate the purchase of health insurance as long as it conditions that mandate on engagement in some commercial activity” and “even if the [insurance purchase] mandate were not directly authorized under the commerce clause, it is authorized under the necessary and proper clause as rationally related to the constitutional exercise of the power to regulate premiums and prohibit rejecting the sick.”
Last year Colorado passed a law requiring retailers who do not collect Colorado sales and use taxes to–
- “notify Colorado customers that the customer is required to pay use tax on the purchase;
- send an annual statement to each Colorado customer, summarizing the customer’s total annual purchases from the e-tailer; and
- file an annual information report with the Colorado Department of Revenue showing the total amount of sales made to each customer in Colorado.”
Colorado could then use this information to monitor residents’ compliance with state laws requiring reporting and payment of use taxes. E-Commerce Times reports that the Direct Marketing Association challenged the sale on the grounds that it discriminates against out-of-state retailers and burdens interstate commerce. Last month a federal court in Denver issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from enforcing the law until its validity can be determined at trial.
This Op-Ed piece by Larry Tribe, constitutional law scholar and Harvard Law School professor, explains why “[t]here is every reason to believe that a strong, nonpartisan majority of justices will do their constitutional duty, set aside how they might have voted had they been members of Congress and treat this constitutional challenge for what it is — a political objection in legal garb”–in other words, why they will uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.