ATLANTA – In the most important appeal of the Obamacare constitutional saga, today was the best day yet for individual freedom. The government’s lawyer, Neal Katyal, spent most of the hearing on the ropes, with the judicial panel extremely cautious not to extend federal power beyond its present outer limits of regulating economic activity that has a substantial aggregate effect on interstate commerce.
As the lawyer representing 26 states against the federal government said, “The whole reason we do this is to protect liberty.” With those words, former solicitor general Paul Clement reached the essence of the Obamacare lawsuits. With apologies to Joe Biden, this is a big deal not because we’re dealing with a huge reorganization of the health care industry, but because our most fundamental first principle is at stake: we limit government power so people can live their lives the way they want.
This legal process is not an academic exercise to map the precise contours of the Commerce Clause or Necessary and Proper Clause – or even to vindicate our commitment to federalism or judicial review. No, all of these worthy endeavors are just means to achieve the goal of maximizing human freedom and flourishing. Indeed, that is the very reason the government exists in the first place.
And the 11th Circuit judges saw that. Countless times, Judges Dubina and Marcus demanded that the government articulate constitutional limiting principles to the power it asserted. And countless times they pointed out that never in history has Congress tried to compel people to engage in commerce as a means of regulating commerce. Even Judge Hull, reputed to be the most liberal member of the panel, conducted a withering cross-examination to establish that the individual mandate didn’t help that many people get affordable care, that the majority of people currently without coverage would be exempt from the requirement (presumably due to their income level).
In short, while we should never read too much into an oral argument, I’m more optimistic about this case now than any other.
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