Tag: amicus briefs

Once More Into the Obamacare Breach

Today we filed Cato’s sixth brief supporting the various legal challenges to Obamacare, this time in the D.C. Circuit.  Like Tom Joad, wherever the fight has been, we’ve been there, and now it’s in our backyard.

In February, Judge Gladys Kessler of the D.C. district court granted Congress the power to regulate “mental activity” in a decision that flippantly disregarded the core distinction between action and inaction: “Making a choice is an affirmative action, whether one decides to do something or not do something.”  The frightening scope of that opinion has proven more harmful than helpful to the government, which has shifted its focus away from Kessler’s sweeping language by describing the mandate as merely a requirement that people pre-pay for the health care they will inevitably use.

Our latest brief deals more directly with that added nuance—even more so than the brief Cato filed two weeks ago.  Due to a local circuit rule requiring amici with similar arguments to file jointly, Cato coordinated a brief involving six other organizations—Mountain States Legal Foundation, Pacific Legal Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Goldwater Institute, Revere America, and Idaho Freedom Foundation—as well as Prof. Randy Barnett.  

Using Cato’s previous brief as a starting point, amici worked together to adjust our arguments in light of new ideas coming from both the government and academia.  The core argument, however, remains the same: regardless of any linguistic contortions, the non-purchase of health care is fundamentally a non-economic inactivity that Congress cannot reach under the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses.  

Allowing Congress the power to conscript citizens into economic transactions not only goes beyond current precedent, but would give Congress a general and limitless police power to do whatever it thinks best, checked only by politics.  

In addition to the doctrinal arguments we presented in previous briefs, here we remind the court that limiting Congress’s power is the explicit purpose of Article I of the Constitution and address the relationship of the individual mandate to United States v. Comstock, the most recent interpretation of the limits on federal power under the Necessary and Proper Clause (a case in which Cato also filed a brief, that Ilya Somin covered in our Supreme Court Review, and about Trevor Burrus and I recently published a law review article).  

The D.C. Circuit will hear the case of Seven-Sky v. Holder in September.  Given the state of litigation around the country, we will likely not be filing another Obamacare brief before the action reaches the Supreme Court—which it’s expected to later this year, after the first few circuit courts issue their rulings.

Activity vs. Inactivity

The challenge to the constitutionality of the individual mandate – Obamacare’s central feature, without which the whole regulatory scheme collapses (practically speaking, though I agree with Judge Vinson that it also can’t be severed as a matter of law) – boils down to whether, under modern constitutional doctrine regarding what Congress can do under the guise of regulating interstate commerce, the government can force “inactive” people into a particular action, namely buying health insurance.

That is, while cases like Wickard  (Congress can force farmer to meet quota and bring crops to market) and Raich (Congress can stop wholly intrastate growth and consumption of marijuana) – moving from wheat to weed – are disconcerting for those of us who see limits on federal power, there is a qualitative difference between regulating or prohibiting existing economic activity and mandating that someone engage in such activity.  When Randy Barnett (who argued Raich) first articulated that distinction and labeled the new assertion of federal power “unprecedented,” that’s what he meant: Congress has never forced people to engage in economic activity.  Not during the New Deal – nobody had to become a farmer or buy wheat – nor during the Civil Rights Era – if you didn’t want to serve blacks, you could shut down your restaurant or hotel.

The “activity/inactivity” distinction thus becomes the last straw holding back a general federal police power that would allow Congress to require anything of the citizenry so long as it was part of a national regulatory scheme.  No enumerated power to require people to buy Chevys?  No problem, we’ll have a full-scale auto bailout that only works if people have to buy Chevys.  No enumerated power to require people to take out Fannie Mae mortgages?  No problem, we’ll have a “National Housing Market Recovery Act” that only works if people have to do just that.  You don’t have to invoke broccoli or asparagus to make the point; the “broccoli mandate” is used so often only because, if anything, requirements to buy healthy foods and join gyms would be more closely connected to the goal of reducing taxpayer spending on health care than the individual health insurance mandate.

In any case, I won’t go on about activity vs. inactivity because you can read all about it in our latest brief and also in a fascinating  Volokh Conspiracy debate among Orin Kerr, Jon Adler – both of whom will be contributing to this year’s Cato Supreme Court Review – and Randy Barnett:

  1. Orin notes that the Fourth Circuit judges were “baffled” by the activity/inactivity distinction;
  2. Jon replies that he’s baffled that anybody could be baffled by that;
  3. Randy offers a different take on the judges’ concerns;
  4. Orin discusses a possible analogy of the definition of “activity” to its common-law equivalent, the “actus reus”;
  5. Randy issues a rejoinder to Orin’s analysis;
  6. Orin clarifies the issue.

Fascinating stuff, and a discussion that will continue – and not just on the VC.

Cato’s Latest Obamacare Brief

As I noted yesterday, Obamacare is moving towards its inevitable date with the Supreme Court.  Although the pace may be aggravating, attorneys on both sides are strengthening their arguments and clarifying the issues presented.

Cato’s latest brief, filed today in the Eleventh Circuit in support of 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business, sharpens the position we already expressed in briefs filed in the Fourth Circuit and the Sixth Circuit.  Our focus remains the question of whether the Constitution authorizes Congress to mandate that individuals purchase health insurance or suffer a fine.

The government has subtly shifted its thinking at this stage, however, to argue that the individual mandate does not so much compel “inactive” citizens to act but merely regulates when and how health care is purchased. Everyone will eventually purchase health care, the argument goes, and the mandate requires that people pre-pay for that care so they don’t shift the costs onto others.

We point out how this argument is a spurious misdirection, an attempt to recharacterize the individual mandate in terms that are directly contrary to the purpose and function of the overall statute.  Obamacare explicitly regulates the status of being uninsured—and not just those who seek to shift health care costs to the future or slough them onto taxpayers (indeed, the politically uncomfortable truth is that those most likely to incur health care expenses they cannot pay, the poor, are exempt from the mandate).

We argue that, regardless of the spin that the government places on it, the individual mandate “regulates” inactivity, something that not even modern constitutional doctrine allows.  The status of being uninsured cannot be transformed into economic activity via semantic prestidigitation; no matter how artfully articulated, a decision not to purchase insurance, or to do nothing, or to self-insure, is not a federally regulable action.  The outermost bounds of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause, as exercised via the Necessary and Proper Clause, reach certain classes of intrastate economic activity that substantially affects interstate commerce.  But Congress cannot reach inactivity even if it purports to act pursuant to a broader regulatory scheme.

Allowing Congress to conscript citizens into economic transactions would not only be unprecedented—as government-friendly the precedent is—but would fundamentally alter the relationship between the sovereign people and their supposed “public servants.”  The individual mandate “commandeers the people” into the federal government’s brave new health care world.

The Eleventh Circuit will hear Florida v. U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Services in Atlanta on June 8.

Drinking Away Your Constitutional Problems

Santa Clara law professor Brad Joondeph, who runs the very helpful – as a primary document aggregator for all the Obamacare cases –  ACA Litigation Blog, thinks he’s stumbled onto something :

So after reading my roughly 500th ACA-litigation-related brief, motion, or filing of some sort, I think I have gotten a little punchy. But it occurs to me that a a great new drinking game for those ACA litigation buffs who sit around on Friday nights drinking beers – a huge cohort, I am sure – would be to read aloud briefs filed by the challengers, and take turns drinking when the word “unprecedented” is used.

Indeed, the argument that there is no Supreme Court precedent sanctioning the assertion of power the government claims  – that the individual mandate is, quite literally, unprecedented – goes back to the earliest articulated constitutional arguments against Obamacare, particularly by the “intellectual godfather” of the legal challenges.  I can tell you that Cato’s latest Obamacare brief, which we’ll be filing in the Eleventh Circuit – the Florida-led 26-state case – next week, uses the word three times.  (We also use “novel.”)

The drinking game that Joondeph proposes, however, is not, um, unprecedented.  Josh Blackman has been talking about it incessantly at least since our time writing about the Privileges or Immunities Clause.  He even blogged about it last August! 

I would suggest that Brad and Josh play the “unprecedented” drinking game to settle the score once and for all, but alas Josh doesn’t drink.  Maybe I should step in for him; if I can bet Yale law professor Akhil Amar $100 on the outcome of the litigation, I can certainly do this.

For other connections between booze and the Commerce Clause, see my recent post on the (unfortunately not unprecedented) Care Act.

Supreme Court Denies Expedited Obamacare Review

That the Supreme Court declined to take up the Obamacare litigation before even a single appellate court had ruled on it is neither surprising nor game-changing.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s cert petition, whatever its merits (which were several), was a long-shot to begin with as a matter of practice and procedure.  Cato, like all other interested parties, has continued filing briefs in and commenting on the various cases on appeal around the country. 

The only noteworthy point here is that Justice Elena Kagan apparently participated in the consideration of the petition, which indicates that she won’t be recused when one of these cases does hit the Court.  This too isn’t terribly surprising: I’m still digging through the documents regarding her involvement (or lack thereof) in discussions about the litigation when she was solicitor general, but there does not as yet seem to be a “smoking gun” requiring recusal.

In any event, see you in Richmond on May 10 for the Fourth Circuit argument in the two Virginia lawsuits.

More on AEP v. Connecticut: Sue the Butterflies or Regulate Them?

During Tuesday’s oral arguments in American Electric Power v. Connecticut—the global warming lawsuit that Walter Olson recently discussed here and Ilya Shapiro here, and in which Cato filed amicus briefs at both the certiorari stage and the merits stage—the justices concentrated their inquiries on a few technical legal doctrines in order to answer one question: should states even be allowed to sue power companies for the damage that global warming has allegedly done to their lands and citizens?

There are multiple ways this question could be answered, and how it is answered in the final opinion could have important ramifications for future environmental litigation.

Connecticut and five other states, plus New York City and three land trusts, brought the suit against five power companies. Their claim is based on the age-old tort of nuisance, the same ground that lets you sue your neighbor if his contaminated water seeps onto your land. Essentially, the states argued that if courts can solve that kind of dispute, then a dispute over global warming is only slightly different—bigger in scope, certainly, but not different in kind.

But at oral argument, the justices did not seem persuaded. Arguing against the states, Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal opened by pointing out that “[i]n the 222 years that this Court has been sitting, it has never heard a case with so many potential perpetrators and so many potential victims…[T]he very name of the alleged nuisance, ‘global warming,’ itself tells you much of what you need to know.” Chief Justice John Roberts later asked the states’ attorney, New York solicitor general Barbara Underwood, if she had any rebuttal to Katyal’s claim—if there was “any case where it has been as broad as it is here?” Her answer? “Well, of course it depends on what you call broad.”

Indeed.

But how much broader could it be? Taking the scientists at their word, we’d have to include at least every car owner, every coal power plant, every natural gas power plant, every cement producer, every forester, and the fabled effects of bovine flatulence. And not just every one of these in America, but every one in the world. The scope of this case and the numerous trade-offs involved make it utterly inappropriate for judicial resolution.

The supposed link between the power companies’ emissions and the alleged global warming harms resembles a Rube Goldberg device of conjectures that stretches back millions of years. In our brief we analogized this to the famous “butterfly effect”: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas.

A few theories were offered as to why the case should not go any further. The most far reaching of these theories, the political question doctrine, is one we advanced in our amicus briefs. The political question doctrine directs courts to stay out of disputes that are better left to the other branches of government. A decision along those lines would go far in the future toward keeping such suits out of courts.

But many environmental lawyers are hoping, and predicting, that the states will “lose well”—that is, the suit will be dismissed because it has been “displaced” by the “regulatory cas­cade” underway at the EPA, not because it is a fundamentally impossible and illegitimate lawsuit. Dismissing the suit on these grounds would leave the door open for large-scale suits to be brought whenever an agency is thought to be shirking its regulatory duties. Such suits are already a problem for administrative agencies, particularly those brought by environmental advocacy groups trying to force agencies to live up to the groups’ idea of sound environmental policy. The NY Times, for example, reported recently on the “barrage [that] has paralyzed the listing process” for the Endangered Species Act.

Not wanting to totally foreclose the possibility of large-scale suits being brought in the future, at least three justices, Kagan, Breyer, and Ginsburg, seemed partial to the displacement theory. One hopes that the other five justices will rule, on either prudential standing or political question grounds, that no amount of regulatory action or inaction can make these suits justiciable. If regulation is called for here – a dubious proposition – it should be undertaken by the political branches, not the courts.

The Takings Clause Has No Expiration Date II

As I wrote last week, a decade ago in Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that those who buy property subject to burdensome regulations lose the right the seller otherwise has to challenge those regulations.  The Court ruled that the Takings Clause does not have an “expiration date.”  Sadly, not all government authorities or courts took Palazzolo to heart, and now we have a second such case meriting Cato’s involvement in the span of a week.

In 2000, after the EPA issued a Record of Decision concerning limiting access to a “slough” (a narrow strip of navigable water) on its Superfund National Priorities List, CRV Enterprises began negotiations to buy a parcel of land next to the slough across from a site once occupied by a wood-preserving plant.  CRV hoped to develop that parcel and others it already controlled into a mixed-use development, including a marina, boat slips, restaurants, lodging, storage, sales, and service facilities.  The company eventually bought the land with notice of the EPA’s ROD but the EPA later installed a “sand cap” and “log boom” that obstructed CRV’s access to the slough.

CRV sued the United States in the Court of Federal Claims, which dismissed the case for lack of standing. The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding that CRV’s claim “is barred because [the company] did not own a valid property interest at the time of the alleged regulatory taking.”  The Federal Circuit thus turned two Supreme Court precedents on their head and put that “expiration date” on the Takings Clause.  It did so despite the fact that multiple federal courts have upheld Palazzolo’s rule and that longstanding California common law recognizes that a littoral (next to water) owner’s access to the shore adjacent to his property is a property right.

Cato, joined by Reason Foundation, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and the National Federation of Independent Business, filed an amicus brief supporting CRV’s request that the Supreme Court review the Federal Circuit’s decision and reaffirm Palazzolo.  We argue the following: (1) when post-enactment purchasers are per se denied standing to challenge regulation, government power expands at the expense of private property rights; (2) a rule under which pre-enactment owners have superior rights to subsequent title-holders threatens to disrupt real estate markets; (3) the Federal Circuit abrogated the rule of Palazzolo; and (4) this case — viewed in the context of other courts’ rulings — indicates the need for the Supreme Court to settle the spreading confusion about Palazzolo.  Otherwise, the existence of a “post-enactment” rule will create a “massive uncompensated taking” from small developers and investors that would preserve and enhance the rights of large corporations.

Palazzolo put to rest “once and for all the notion that title to property is altered when it changes hands.”  The ability of property owners to challenge government interference with their property is essential to a proper understanding of the Fifth Amendment; the Court must reestablish the principle that transfer of title does not diminish property rights.  Significantly, the Federal Circuit isn’t alone in its misapplication of Palazzolo; the Ninth Circuit in Guggenheim v. City of Goleta (in which Cato also filed a brief) recently issued an opinion severely narrowing Palazzolo’s scope and deepening a circuit split.

Thanks to legal associate Nick Mosvick and former legal associate Brandon Simmons (acting as our outside counsel in this case) for their work on this case, CRV Enterprises v. United States.