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FEATURED DISCUSSION
Obamacare Decision: Reactions

James Copland

In March, concurrent with the historic three-day oral argument before the Supreme Court considering the constitutionality of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, we hosted a discussion of the issues in play, including Erwin Chemerinsky, Richard Epstein, Orin Kerr, Gillian Metzger, Michael Rosman, and Nadine Strossen. With the Court announcing its decision today, we've invited these guests back to share their opinions, if they wish, alongside those of the Manhattan Institute's own scholars.

Adam Freedman

I'm not quite glass-half-full on the ObamaCare decision, but it does have its silver linings. I agree with the dissenters on all points, including the point that Roberts' re-characterization of the "penalty" provision as a tax is essentially an activist decision, for reasons I'll get to below.

On the good news front, the Court struck down (for the first time) a scheme of conditional federal grants as being unduly coercive against the states -- that would be ACA's Medicaid expansion which threatened to pull the plug on all Medicaid dollars for states that don't march in lockstep with the feds.

Also good -- very good -- is the fact that the Court rejected the administrations two primary arguments: that the individual mandate is justified under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. So now we know: Congress cannot use its regulatory power to compel activity. There must be some pre-existing activity (and it has to be of an "economic" nature) for Congress to be able to regulate.

But then the bad -- very bad -- news: Roberts accepted the validity of the mandate as a "tax" imposed to promote the "general welfare." As a matter of original meaning, this conclusion is incoherent. Everything we know about the original understanding of the text tells us that it was not meant to authorize Congress to use its taxing power to achieve ends that it could not do under its enumerated powers. Unfortunately, however, that conclusion is supported by precedent going back to the 1937 Helvering v. Davis. It is the Hamiltonian view of "general welfare." I don't buy it, but it was not likely that the Court was going to revive the Madisonian (correct) view of general welfare at this date.

So, Congress cannot compel you to enter into commerce, but it can tax you if you refuse to enter into commerce. What are the limits to this doctrine? As far as I can tell they are:

  • The tax cannot be so high that people have no choice but to purchase health insurance [or whatever product or service Congress decides to mandate next];
  • Congress cannot attach any other "negative legal consequences" to the failure to engage in commerce; e.g., Congress cannot impose criminal or civil penalties for failing to buy health insurance.
  • The tax must be imposed regardless of intent, thus, Congress can't impose a tax only on those who "intentionally refuse to buy health insurance."
  • The tax must be collected in the same manner as other taxes, ie, via the IRS.

The dangerous part of his decision is not that he expanded the scope of the "taxing power" (as I explain above, existing precedents already did that) but he greatly expanded the Court's power to reclassify a regulatory measure as a "tax." Roberts relies on the principle that if courts are faced with differing interpretations of a law, they should choose the interpretation that upholds the law. But that assumes that the competing interpretations are plausible. Here, Congress was absolutely crystal clear in categorizing the "shared responsibility payment" as a "penalty," i.e., a means to enforce a regulatory command, and not a tax. The President who signed the law emphatically denied it was a tax.

A Court re-writing a statute to achieve a certain result is the very definition of judicial acitivism. For the Court to rewrite a law so as to impose a tax is doubly disturbing. As the dissenters say: "Imposing a tax through judicial legislation inverts the constitutional scheme, and places the power to tax in the branch of government least accountable to the citizenry."

Ted Frank

The second-silliest reactions coming from today's ACA opinion are the conservatives comparing Bush II's nomination of Roberts to Bush I's nomination of Souter. This is hardly fair. Roberts has been a sound fifth conservative vote on critically important First and Second Amendment issues; he's consistently refused to abuse the Eighth Amendment to strike down legitimate exercises of state legislative power in criminal law; he's consistently enforced Congress's limitations on habeas relief. And today, he signed onto both the broadest restrictions of Congress's Commerce Clause power in decades and the first teeth in South Dakota v. Dole, limiting the ability of the federal government to bully the states. (The silliest reaction? The retroactive wishes for Justice Harriet Miers—which would be objectively silly even if it wasn't for the historical fact that Miers was nominated for Alito's seat, not Roberts's.)

One can be dismayed about the broad scope of the taxing power implicated by today's decision, but that is not anything new; for example, you've been paying extra taxes for failing to buy an electric car since at least the 2001 tax year, and extra taxes for not having a residential mortgage for even longer. (These are called tax credits, rather than penalties or taxes, but they're economically indistinguishable at the margin or otherwise, somewhat refuting Richard Epstein's complaint.)

The complaint is perhaps whether the "penalty" should be called a "tax" when Congress refused to call it a "tax"; the dissent would hold Congress to its language, while Roberts, alone, looks purely at the economics of the matter. Both arguments are colorable: after all, the Court has previously characterized "taxes" as "penalties" when they held the character of penalties, so why not vice versa? To which the Scalia dissent responds that this is the first time the Court has done so, and it is the finest of hair-splitting to say that a penalty isn't a tax for purposes of the Anti-Injunction Act, but is for purposes of the Taxing Power inquiry.

I've previously been unhappy with Roberts's tendencies to blue-line rewrite statutes to avoid tough constitutional questions; the canon of constitutional avoidance is one thing, but creating non-existent text to fix problems just seems to me outside the Article III power. We saw this in Free Enterprise Fund, NAMUDNO, and Wisconsin Right to Life. With it happening again today both in the construction of the penalty as a tax and the rewrite of the Medicaid penalties to the states, we can officially note an unhappy trend in the Chief Justice Roberts jurisprudence.

ACA opponents have an out in the Roberts opinion: it remains prohibited for the taxing power to be excessively punitive, a matter not well raised in the briefs. "Because the tax at hand is within even those strict limits, we need not here decide the precise point at which an exaction becomes so punitive that the taxing power does not authorize it" (slip op. 43). But ACA imposes marginal income "taxes" of over 100% on certain members of the middle class who are in a particular donut-hole of income. Expect to see a new challenge in the future on this, and on other aspects of ACA.

Update: Typos in the Scalia dissent—which repeatedly refer to the "Ginsburg dissent"—show that it was originally meant as a majority opinion? [DeLong; see also Bernstein @ Volokh] One hopes very much that the Roberts flip was a sincere decision consistent with his previous overbroad canon of constitutional avoidance, rather than a "switch in time to save nine" prompted by the offensive degree of lobbying and attacks on the Court's integrity by the Obama administration and its allies.

Nadine Strossen
Professor of Law, New York Law School
President, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 1991-2008

The Court's decision is hard to summarize in a simple headline because of its multiple holdings, which were supported by majority votes comprised of differing subsets of the Justices. To be sure, the bottom-line result of the Court's central holding was to sustain Congressional power to enact the Affordable Care Act's minimum coverage requirement. However, the Court's overall analysis and multiple subsidiary holdings, viewed as a whole, actually endorse a notable reining-in of the federal government's power in several respects. This was underscored by the partial dissent that Justice Ginsburg authored on behalf of the Court's four more "liberal" Justices, objecting to these holdings.

The decision's cutbacks on federal power were reflected in the following holdings, which were supported by the Court's more "conservative" Justices:

  • The Court rejected the central rationale of the U.S. and other proponents of the Act -- that Congress had the power to pass it under the Commerce Clause and/or the Necessary and Proper Clause.

  • For only the third time since 1937, the Court held that Congress had exceeded its Commerce Clause power.

  • The Court substantially cut back on the very broad construction it has consistently given to the Necessary and Proper Clause, including in recent rulings.

  • The Court partially invalidated the "Medicaid expansion" provision - which grants additional federal funds to states to expand Medicaid coverage, on the condition that the states comply with certain federal requirements for such coverage - holding that this provision exceeded Congress's power under the Taxing and Spending Clause. The Court has repeatedly held that Congress may condition its financial grants to states on a range of requirements. While the Court has in the past nodded to the possibility that some conditions might hypothetically be so onerous as to overstep Congress's power and unduly constrain states' autonomy, this was the first time the Court has ever struck down any federal funding program on that basis.

In sum, the above holdings explicitly reined in Congress's powers under three separate power-granting constitutional clauses: the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the Taxing and Spending Clause.

Nor are these power-restricting holdings likely to be offset, in terms of federal power in future contexts, by the Court's holding that the minimum coverage provision was authorized by Congress's taxing power. That's because the Court framed this holding extremely narrowly in several ways, including by anchoring it to the specific facts of this unique case.

In short, while the Court did uphold federal power in this case, its specific rationales may well have a net impact of limiting federal power in future contexts.

Richard Epstein
Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law, New York University School of Law
Visiting Scholar, Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy

There are many oddities in the decision of the United States Supreme Court, but there is one trend that seems clearly to have been strengthened by the split decision in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. On the one hand it looks as though the ability of the federal government to impose direct regulations on individuals has been increased by the decision. There is nothing in the case that cuts back on the scope of Wickard v. Filburn that deals with the ability of the government to regulate all sorts of activities, no matter how small, that have some substantial effect on commerce in the aggregate. That power is the source of great mischief because it permits the federal government to organize cartels in agriculture that the states themselves could never put together.

Yet at the same time, this new found tax is an expansion of the taxing power to cover an odd set of activities including not buying health care insurance. So add the two points together, and there is more direct power in the federal government over individuals than before the case, or at least there is not less.

Yet the Court also struck down the Medicaid extension as coercive against the states. That decision rested on the view that it is not permissible to take away all Medicaid money from states that do not choose to agree to the Medicaid expansion. What it suggests is that the exercise of federal power in commandeering the states is now more limited than we had previously expected. After all, every lower court rejected the challenge that was accepted 7 to 2.

It will take a long time to sort out the relative strength of the two decisions. But make no mistake about it, knocking down a multi-billion dollar initiative is no small potatoes.


Michael E. Rosman
General Counsel, The Center for Individual Rights

Today's decision demonstrates how both difficult and fascinating enumerated powers cases can be. Much can be said, but I would like to address one brief issue. Was there a holding today that the Individual Mandate was not a proper exercise of Congress's Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper ("N&P") Clause powers?

The Chief claimed that there was, and he did so in Part III-C, which was designated as part of the Opinion of the Court (joined by Ginsburg, et al). Roberts Op. at 41-42 ("The Court today holds that our Constitution protects us from federal regulation under the Commerce Clause so long as we abstain from the regulated activity.") (emphasis added). Really? It is true that five Justices concluded that the Individual Mandate could not be justified under that constitutional power (and the N&P Clause), but four of them (Scalia, Alito, Kennedy, and Thomas) were in dissent (at least as to the constitutionality of the Individual Mandate issue). In United States v. Morrison, the Court specifically rejected the proposition that the conclusion of six Justices in United States v. Guest -- three in a concurrence and three in dissent - that Congress could reach private conduct under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, was a binding holding of the Court. U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 624 (2000) ("This is simply not the way that reasoned constitutional adjudication proceeds.").

Today, Justice Ginsburg chided the Chief for even reaching the Commerce Clause question, which she thought was unnecessary given his opinion on the Tax Power. (She was right, of course, but the same thing could have been said about her own opinion.) Did she, and those joining her opinion, nonetheless think that the Court had held that the Individual Mandate was unconstitutional under the Commerce and N&P Clauses, as Part III-C of the Chief's opinion (for the Court, remember, joined by Ginsburg, et al.) says? Isn't unnecessary legal analysis what we call dicta? Curious, then, that the Reporter of Decision, in the summary of the decision, does not identify Part III-A of the Chief's opinion (in which he discusses the Commerce and N&P Clauses) as part of the opinion for the Court. Nor does the heading above the Chief's opinion (parts of which say "Opinion of the Court" and other parts of which say "Opinion of Roberts, C.J.").

So, was there a Commerce Clause holding? Maybe, but I doubt any subsequent Court that wants to ignore it will have difficulty doing so.

The Implications

June 29, 2012 9:41 AM | No Comments

Erwin Chemerinsky
Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law,
University of California, Irvine School of Law

Now that the anticipation is over and the decision has been read (all 193 pages), attention must focus on how, if at all, the Court's decision has changed the law. There were three major conclusions to the Court's decision.

First, the individual mandate is within the scope of Congress taxing power. This, unquestionably, is the most important aspect of the Court's decision and it doesn't change the law at all. The Court's conclusion that the individual mandate is a tax breaks no new ground. The Supreme Court previously had said that the label used in not determinative. Nor is it at all surprising that this was treated as a tax. It is in every way functionally a tax: it is collected by the IRS, it is calculated by a percentage of income (or a flat rate), and it generates revenue for the federal government. Not one federal tax has been declared unconstitutional since 1937 and so upholding this one is not remarkable in terms of the law.

Second, five justices said that the individual mandate is outside the scope of the commerce power. From one perspective, this is just dicta because the Court upheld the individual mandate on other grounds. But Chief Justice Roberts said that he needed to decide this in order to justify interpreting the individual mandate as a tax. That seems a dubious justification for his addressing the commerce power or making his discussion a holding. But putting that aside, five justices said that Congress cannot regulate inactivity. This seems highly questionable as applied here because everyone is engaged in activity with regard to health care; they are either purchasing health insurance or self-insuring. Congress was regulating the latter. Still, it is not clear how much this will matter in the future since it is rare for Congress to require activity.

The third holding is the most important in changing the law: the Supreme Court said that the burden on the states with regard to Medicaid funding exceeded the scope of Congress's spending power because it was too coercive. This is the first time in American history that conditions on federal spending have been declared unconstitutional as being unduly coercive. Many federal spending programs impose conditions on states taking federal money. There likely will be many challenges after the Court's decision. But the Court did not give any criteria as to how to decide when conditions are so coercive as to violate the Constitution.

Overall, the decision must be seen as following 75 years of Supreme Court decisions upholding federal social welfare legislation. If the Court had done anything else, that would have been a very dramatic change in the law.

James Copland

In my estimation, the most significant part of yesterday's Obamacare ruling was not its handling of the individual mandate but its limitation on Congress's power to coerce states through federal funding--a holding that will become critical as the health-care law is implemented and in many other cases in the future.

To uphold the ACA's "individual mandate" and its private-insurance reforms, the Chief Justice somewhat brazenly rewrote a regulatory penalty as a tax - a reading his opinion itself admitted was not the most common-sense reading of the statutory language. The Chief's reading was hardly a model of statutory construction, but it was motivated by the conservative doctrine of "constitutional avoidance": the principle, first embraced by Chief Justice Marshall in the 1833 case Ex parte Randolph, that given the "delicacy" of the courts overturning the acts of coordinate branches (and the difficulty of amending the constitution), "a just respect for the legislature requires, that the obligation of its laws should not be unnecessarily and wantonly assailed" through the judiciary's application of the constitutional power of judicial review.

The Chief Justice was very likely motivated by institutional concerns, as outlined persuasively by Charles Krauthammer. As Krauthammer notes, as Chief Justice, Roberts wears "dual hats," and in his role as "custodian of the court" he is "acutely aware that the judiciary's arrogation of power has eroded the esteem in which it was once held." Krauthammer is right that most of this arrogation occurred during the liberal era of Earl Warren and William Brennan, but also that the Court's decision in Bush v. Gore to halt the recount in Florida in a presidential election--however necessary to avoid a constitutional crisis being engendered by an irresponsible Florida judiciary--substantially eroded the Court's public perception, particularly given that case's 5-4 ideological split. The president had already shown an unhealthy willingness to demagogue the Court over its Citizens United decision and had signaled an intention to do the same should the Court overturn his administration's signature legislative accomplishment on constitutional grounds. Roberts was almost certainly haunted by the specter of Schechter Poultry, in which the Court in 1935 overturned the National Industrial Recovery Act (a signature of Roosevelt's New Deal, however misguided), and proceeded to provoke a showdown with the president that culminated in FDR's threat to "pack the Court" with new appointees.

Thus, the Chief Justice turned to perhaps disingenuous statutory construction to uphold the law in question. In the process, however, he labored to lay out some conservative markers that set boundaries on Congressional power and signal that the federal government is not one of unlimited powers under the constitution. To be sure, the taxing power is broad, but as Ted Frank suggested, that was already the law of the land before yesterday. (As I noted in my instant reaction to the case over at NRO, "Congress already can and does penalize us for acting or not acting in hosts of areas, including such sacred realms as getting married or having children.") But Nadine Strossen is right (in her analysis if not its normative framing): when you look at this decision in terms of constitutional interpretation, rather than statutory construction, you see a Court sketching out definitive limits on the application of Congressional power through the Commerce Clause, Necessary and Proper Clause, and Spending Clause.

Indeed, like Jay Cost, I see echoes of Chief Justice Marshall in Roberts's gambit here. In Marbury v. Madison, Marshall gave Jefferson what he wanted (he refused to order that Jefferson issue mandates to the remaining Federalist judges appointed under the Judiciary Act of 1801) even as he laid down the principle of judicial review. That decision paved the way for Fletcher v. Peck--when the Court assumed the power of judicial review over states--as well as the Court's broader readings of the Commerce Clause (Gibbons v. Ogden) and Necessary and Proper Clause (McCullough v. Maryland) that were to come. While yesterday's rulings didn't get us all the way back to Gibbons and McCullough, they clearly insisted that there's an outer bound to what Congress can do under those grants of power.

More significant still is the Court's decision to place limits on Congress's ability to coerce states to act through conditional use of the federal spending power. The 1987 case South Dakota v. Dole left a gaping hole that ran through the 1990s federalism decisions that kept Congress from applying the Commerce Clause to non-economic activity (Lopez and Morrison), kept Congress from applying the Commerce Clause to create private rights of action against states (Seminole Tribe and Alden), and prohibited Congress from "commandeering" states to act according to federal dictate (New York and Printz): what's the functional point of prohibiting Congress from "commandeering the states" if they can effectively coerce/induce the states to conform to Congress's will through the virtually untrammeled grants of federal money? While Dole suggested that there was a theoretical limit to Congress's ability to influence states through the Spending Clause--in which "inducement" became "coercion"--neither the Supreme Court nor lower courts had ever found an occasion to do so.

Until yesterday. Richard Epstein noted the importance of the Spending Clause question, but most other analysts ignored it, as did the lower courts, in keeping with post-Dole jurisprudence. But if it's not "plainly coercive" to condition state receipt of Medicaid funds on state compliance with Congressional dictates--noting that Medicaid is second only to education spending in most state budgets--then when would it ever be? In the minds of Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, the answer is essentially never, but the real constitutional problem under the Spending Clause is laid bare by the fact that the conservatives on the Court were joined in this part of the case by Justice Kagan, President Obama's former solicitor general, and Justice Breyer, Senator Ted Kennedy's former staffer.

Yes, the Court permitted Congress to condition the Medicaid expansions on state compliance--thus making this holding an outer bound rather than a major check on Congressional influence over the states through the Spending Clause. But expect more litigation in the future. At a minimum, Congress will have to check itself when it invokes the Spending Clause.

And although Obamacare survives, the ability for states to opt out of the Medicaid provisions is the greatest prospect for reining in the statute's excesses if it isn't repealed. As my colleagues Avik Roy and Paul Howard noted in our panel discussion of the decision last night (around minute 33- of the videotaped program), there is the real prospect that some states could shift costs onto the federal government by opting out, so that even if most states won't do so (and they won't), the threat of exit could increase state bargaining power to negotiate waivers of some of the new law's most overreaching provisions.

At a minimum, through this decision, the Court holds onto the premise that the federal government (at least outside the taxing power) is one of limited, enumerated powers--and in the process reifies and amplifies its 1990s federalism decisions. From a constitutional law standpoint, there's something in there for conservatives to cheer.

To be sure, it's only the outer bounds that come into play in such constitutional judgments--because constitutional law is largely about boundary limits (which is why it's a bit odd that so many legal thinkers focus on it so obsessively--at the expense of the nitty-gritty questions of civil litigation, criminal prosecution, and corporate governance that we primarily concern ourselves with at the Center for Legal Policy, where real outcomes are at play). As Alex Bickel understood, in a democratic republic, elected majorities will ultimately get their way; and we're unlikely to see a return to the era in which the Progressive and New Deal courts turned back the tide of popular opinion. (We may or may not one day be able to get rid of Wickard v. Filburn, but we won't get rid of Helvering v. Davis or bring back Panama Refining v. Ryan and Schechter Poultry, and therein lie the heart of the welfare and regulatory state.) Elections matter--and that's where the fate of Obamacare will ultimately rest.

 

 

 

 

FEATURED DISCUSSION ARCHIVE:


Obamacare Decision: Reactions, July 2012
Law School Faculty Diversity, May-June 2012
Class Actions, May 2012
Constitutionality of Individual Mandate, March 2012
Human Rights and International Law, February-March 2012
The constitutionality of President Obama's recess appointments, January 2012
Do caps on medical malpractice damages hurt consumers?, December 2011
Trial Lawyers Inc.: State Attorneys General, October 2011
Wal-Mart v. Dukes, April 2011
Kagan Supreme Court nomination, May-June 2010
Election roundtable, November-December 2006
Who's the boss, September 2006
Medical judgement, July 2006
Lawyer Licensing, May 2006
Contingent claims, April 2006
Smoking guns, July 2004

Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.