NYT: Attorneys General Advance “a Credible Theory for Eviscerating” ObamaCare

The New York Times‘ Kevin Sack reports on the legal challenge to ObamaCare’s individual mandate launched by 20 state attorneys general:

Some legal scholars, including some who normally lean to the left, believe the states have identified the law’s weak spot and devised a credible theory for eviscerating it…

Jonathan Turley, who teaches at George Washington University Law School, said that if forced to bet, he would predict that the courts would uphold the health care law. But Mr. Turley said that the federal government’s case was far from open-and-shut, and that he found the arguments against the mandate compelling.

“There are few cases in the history of the court system that have a more significant assertion of authority by the government,” said Mr. Turley, a civil libertarian who acknowledged being strange bedfellows with the conservative theorists behind the lawsuit. “This case, more than any other, may give the court sticker shock in terms of its impact on federalism.”

Supporters claim the individual mandate will pass muster with the Supreme Court because in the past the Court has declared that the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause authorizes Congress to regulate non-commercial activity that affects interstate commerce. Sack writes:

Lawyers for the government will contend that, because of the cost-shifting nature of health insurance, people who do not obtain coverage inevitably affect the pricing and availability of policies for everyone else. That, they will argue, is enough to satisfy the Supreme Court’s test.

But to [the attorneys’ general outside counsel David] Rivkin, the acceptance of that argument would herald an era without limits.

“Every decision you can make as a human being has an economic footprint — whether to procreate, whether to marry,” he said. “To say that is enough for your behavior to be regulated transforms the Commerce Clause into an infinitely capacious font of power, whose exercise is only restricted by the Bill of Rights.”

Sack’s article contains an inaccuracy.  He writes:

Congressional bill writers took steps to immunize the law against constitutional challenge…They labeled the penalty on those who do not obtain coverage an “excise tax,” because such taxes enjoy substantial constitutional protection.

In fact, the law uses the term “excise tax” several times, but never in reference to the penalty for violating the individual mandate.  It describes that penalty solely as a penalty.  (The law does refer to the penalty for violating the employer mandate as a tax, but not an excise tax.)

As my Cato colleague Randy Barnett explains, that means supporters cannot reasonably claim that the individual mandate’s penalty is a tax, because that’s not what Congress approved.  As Cato chairman Bob Levy explains, even if supporters do claim that penalty is a tax, it would be an unconstitutional tax, because it does not fit into any of the categories of taxes the Constitution authorizes Congress to impose.

The “substantial constitutional protections” afforded to excise taxes do not protect the individual mandate.