Reactions to ACA Decision

Four scholarly reactions to last week’s decisions from the WSJ Law Blog:

This was a paradigmatic statesmanlike decision, one that will help preserve the Court’s institutional stature.

Today was a great day for constitutional principle, not such a great day for sound health care policy.

It’s enormously gratifying that the Chief Justice, who once was one of my star students in constitutional law and whose views count while of course mine don’t, saved the day — and perhaps the Court, whose place as a legal institution had begun to fall into dangerous disrepute.

The end product was — not to put too fine a point on it — brilliant. It is brilliant in a way that parallels another landmark decision, Marbury v. Madison.

Roberts Walks a Tightrope

The New York Times outlines yesterday’s Supreme Court’s decision upholding most of the Affordable Care Act by linking brief summaries of the components of the decision to the sections of the decision in which they appear. My previous blog posts do not address the Act’s constitutionality under Congress’s power to tax, in part because–as I said yesterday–I’m not conversant with the tax power precedent. Another significant reason I did not address the tax power arguments is that the Obama administration did not advance them, either when Congress passed the law or during oral arguments in March. Chief Justice Roberts latches onto them “because we have a duty to construe a statute to save it, if fairly possible . . . Without deciding the Commerce Clause question, I would find no basis to adopt such a saving construction.” In other words, Roberts is doing his damndest to construe the law as a valid exercise of Congress’s power.

The decision rejects the pro-ACA arguments resting on the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses. But Roberts reaches into his hat and pulls out the rabbit, opining that the Individual Mandate is not a penalty but a valid exercise of Congress’s power to tax. It’s as close to deus ex machina as I can recall in a Supreme Court decision, legalistic ju-jitsu–because earlier in his opinion Roberts decides the Individual Mandate is not a tax for the purposes of the Anti-Inunction Act, which requires that one must first pay a tax before filing a suit challenging its validity. The Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito dissent is having none of it: “[T]o say that the Individual Mandate merely imposes a tax is not to interpret the statute but to rewrite it.”

Individual Mandate is Constitutional

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.

Waiting for the Court

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.

Commerce Clause Arguments

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.

ObamaCare at the Supreme Court

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.

ACTA

As reported in “Meet SOPA’s Evil Twin, ACTA,” SOPA’s demise has brought the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement–ACTA–into focus. (The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has posted ACTA’s text.)  The U.S. was among the group of nations that signed ACTA last October; 22 European countries signed it last Thursday, prompting protests throughout Europe (ars technica, “Opponents protest signing of ACTA without adequate debate“). The U.S. signed ACTA as an Executive Agreement that (the Obama administration claims) does not change U.S. law and thus need not be submitted to Congress, limiting public commentary on its provisions.  Jack Goldsmith and Larry Lessig challenged the Constitutionality of the administration’s secret ACTA negotiations in a  March 2010 Washington Post Op-Ed.

[ACTA’s] proposals [contained in a leaked January 2010 draft] might or might not make sense. But they ought at least be subject to public deliberation. Normal constitutional procedures would require the administration to submit the final text of the agreement for Senate approval as a treaty or to Congress as a “congressional-executive” agreement. But the Obama administration has suggested it will adopt the pact as a “sole executive agreement” that requires only the president’s approval.

Such an assertion of unilateral executive power is usually reserved for insignificant matters. It has sometimes been employed in more important contexts, such as when Jimmy Carter ended the Iran hostage crisis . . .

The Supreme Court, however, has never clarified the limits on such agreements. Historical practice and constitutional structure suggest that they must be based on one of the president’s express constitutional powers (such as the power to recognize foreign governments) . . .

Joining ACTA by sole executive agreement would far exceed these precedents. The president has no independent constitutional authority over intellectual property or communications policy, and there is no long historical practice of making sole executive agreements in this area. To the contrary, the Constitution gives primary authority over these matters to Congress, which is charged with making laws that regulate foreign commerce and intellectual property.

Obscured by SOPA, ACTA managed to fly under the radar to multi-national ratification. The question is whether it’s too late.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) joined the chorus of criticism this week when he called ACTA “more dangerous than SOPA” at a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s not coming to me for a vote,” he said. “It purports that it does not change existing laws. But once implemented, it creates a whole new enforcement system and will virtually tie the hands of Congress to undo it.”

Show Your Civic Illiteracy

For proof of how many Americans fail to comprehend the scope of fundamental rights protected by the U.S. Constitution–not that more proof is needed–read this story about a high school student who successfully challenged the presence of a Christian prayer that has been affixed to the wall of her public school for almost 50 years.

A federal judge ruled this month that the prayer’s presence at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, concluding that it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion.

In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group.

Based on the presence of this prayer in a public school for 49 years and the response of some of its inhabitants to Jessica Ahlquist’s assertion of a well-settled principle established by the First Amendment’s establishment clause I agree that Cranston is indeed “a dense city.” The decision’s opponents are of course entitled to voice their opinions, but one wishes they demonstrated some knowledge of establishment clause jurisprudence before excoriating her.

Supreme Court Rules GPS Tracking Requires Warrant

The U.S. Supreme Court just announced its decision in U.S. v. Jones, ruling unanimously that the government must obtain a warrant before affixing a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle. While all the justices agreed that the Fourth Amendment required police to obtain a warrant they did not agree on the rationale.  Five joined Justice Scalia’s majority opinion that the Fourth Amendment applied to private property such as a vehicle.  Four agreed with Justice Alito that this warrantless search violated the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy. According to the article just posted by The Wall Street Journal

Justice Alito warned that a property-based approach was too narrow to guard against the proliferating threats to personal privacy modern technology posed. Justice Scalia stressed, however, that the majority wasn’t repudiating the broader test articulated in 1967, but rather that it was unnecessary to reach it because installation of the tracker was sufficient by itself to trigger the Fourth Amendment.