Tag: Commerce Clause

Responding to Akhil Amar on Obamacare

Yale law professor Akhil Amar, one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars and a “progressive originalist” of sorts – he joined with Randy Barnett and others on a brief supporting our view of the Privileges or Immunities Clause in the McDonald case – had a fiery op-ed about Judge Vinson’s decision in the Sunday L.A. Times.  More than fiery; I’d say intemperate, uncharacteristically so for the mild-mannered Prof. Amar.

Here’s an excerpt:

There is nothing improper in the means that Obamacare deploys. Laws may properly regulate both actions and inactions, and in any event, Obamacare does not regulate pure inaction. It regulates freeloading. Breathing is an action, and so is going to an emergency room on taxpayers’ nickel when you have trouble breathing.

I was all set to respond when I saw that Tim Sandefur had beat me to the punch on PLF’s blog.  Here’s an excerpt of that:

Instead [of offering a limiting principle to federal power if the individual mandate passes constitutional muster], he resorts to the saddest of rhetorical tricks–accusing the judge of being like Roger Taney in Dred Scott. Lawyers should have their own “Godwin’s Law”: whoever is first to accuse the judge of being like Dred Scott loses the argument. Amar starts out by saying his students know more about the Constitution than Judge Vinson, but what I wonder is whether Amar’s students will, like their teacher, use false analogies, set up straw men, ignore their opponents’ arguments, and resort to the equivalent of childish name-calling.

Good on ya, Tim!  Read the whole thingDavid Bernstein and Ilya Somin have similarly chimed in, and similarly cited Tim.

One thing for which I will commend Amar is his adoption of the term “Obamacare.”  I’ve never understood how this is a pejorative (unless said with a sneer, but by that standard anything can be pejorative). The one semi-accurate criticism I’ve heard is that the law was mostly written by Congress, not the White House – for which the president got plenty of heat.  But that just means it would be better to call it Pelosi-Reid-care, which presumably is no more or less pejorative.  In any event, that ship has sailed: Obamacare this abomination (note I didn’t say “Obamination”) will remain.

Judge Vinson’s Greatest Hits

It’s hard to get too excited about a district court decision – this is one of several, and will be superseded by circuit and eventual Supreme Court decisions – but this decision in Florida v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services is remarkable.  Most notably, the 78-page ruling is well theorized and engaging (Vinson’s opus is a joy to read compared to most stuff I have to wade through to understand what the courts are doing) and sets the stage for the appellate writings to come.  It puts “facts on the ground,” if you will. 

No higher courts are bound but they are influenced.  Judges, like anyone else, don’t want to reinvent the wheel where they don’t have to.  So the circuit courts and even the Supremes will say all this in their own words but don’t for a second think they ain’t payin’ attention.  I can’t cite you statistics about justices being influenced by district (or even circuit) court opinions, but it would be laughable to think that the outcome before the Court would be the same regardless of how the decisions on the merits before several thoughtful district judges went.

Read on for highlights from Judge Vinson’s magisterial opinion (to which I initially responded here and whose immediate consequences I analyzed here).  Page numbers are in parentheses after each quote.

Setting the stage:

This case is not about whether the Act is wise or unwise legislation, or whether it will solve or exacerbate the myriad problems in our health care system. In fact, it is not really about our health care system at all. It is principally about our federalist system, and it raises very important issues regarding the Constitutional role of the federal government. (2)

On the scope of the Commerce Clause:

Never before has Congress required that everyone buy a product from a private company (essentially for life) just for being alive and residing in the United States.[FN14]

 [FN14]… Here, people have no choice but to buy insurance or be penalized. And their freedom is actually more restricted as they do not even have a choice as to the minimum level or type of insurance to buy because Congress established the floor. A single twenty-year old man or woman who only needs and wants major medical or catastrophic coverage, for example, is precluded from buying such a policy under the Act. (38)

The distinction between activity and inactivity:

It would be a radical departure from existing case law to hold that Congress can regulate inactivity under the Commerce Clause. If it has the power to compel an otherwise passive individual into a commercial transaction with a third party merely by asserting … that compelling the actual transaction is itself “commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce” [see Act § 1501(a)(1)], it is not hyperbolizing to suggest that Congress could do almost anything it wanted. It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place. If Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain for it would be “difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power” [Lopez, supra, 514 U.S. at 564], and we would have a Constitution in name only. Surely this is not what the Founding Fathers could have intended. See id. at 592 (quoting Hamilton at the New York Convention that there would be just cause to reject the Constitution if it would allow the federal government to “penetrate the recesses of domestic life, and control, in all respects, the private conduct of individuals”) (Thomas, J., concurring). (43)

On the government’s argument that health care is “unique” because nobody can “opt out” of this market:

After all, there are lots of markets — especially if defined broadly enough — that people cannot “opt out” of. For example, everyone must participate in the food market. Instead of attempting to control wheat supply by regulating the acreage and amount of wheat a farmer could grow as in Wickard, under this logic, Congress could more directly raise too low wheat prices merely by increasing demand through mandating that every adult purchase and consume wheat bread daily, rationalized on the grounds that because everyone must participate in the market for food, non-consumers of wheat bread adversely affect prices in the wheat market. Or, as was discussed during oral argument, Congress could require that people buy and consume broccoli at regular intervals, not only because the required purchases will positively impact interstate commerce, but also because people who eat healthier tend to be healthier, and are thus more productive and put less of a strain on the health care system. Similarly, because virtually no one can be divorced from the transportation market, Congress could require that everyone above a certain income threshold buy a General Motors automobile — now partially government-owned — because those who do not buy GM cars (or those who buy foreign cars) are adversely impacting commerce and a taxpayer-subsidized business. (46)

Uniqueness is not an adequate limiting principle as every market problem is, at some level and in some respects, unique. (49)

On the government’s argument that the not buying health insurance is an “economic decision” that, in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce:

The problem with this legal rationale, however, is it would essentially have unlimited application. There is quite literally no decision that, in the natural course of events, does not have an economic impact of some sort. The decisions of whether and when (or not) to buy a house, a car, a television, a dinner, or even a morning cup of coffee also have a financial impact that — when aggregated with similar economic decisions — affect the price of that particular product or service and have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. To be sure, it is not difficult to identify an economic decision that has a cumulatively substantial effect on interstate commerce; rather, the difficult task is to find a decision that does not. (53)

 The important distinction is that “economic decisions” are a much broader and far-reaching category than are “activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.” While the latter necessarily encompasses the first, the reverse is not true. “Economic” cannot be equated to “commerce.” And “decisions” cannot be equated to “activities.” Every person throughout the course of his or her life makes hundreds or even thousands of life decisions that involve the same general sort of thought process that the defendants maintain is “economic activity.” There will be no stopping point if that should be deemed the equivalent of activity for Commerce Clause purposes. (55)

On the Necessary and Proper Clause:

The Necessary and Proper Clause cannot be utilized to “pass laws for the accomplishment of objects” that are not within Congress’ enumerated powers. As the previous analysis of the defendants’ Commerce Clause argument reveals, the individual mandate is neither within the letter nor the spirit of the Constitution. To uphold that provision via application of the Necessary and Proper Clause would authorize Congress to reach and regulate far beyond the currently established “outer limits” of the Commerce Clause and effectively remove all limits on federal power. (62)

Why the entire 2,700-page piece of legislation must fall:

In the final analysis, this Act has been analogized to a finely crafted watch, and that seems to fit. It has approximately 450 separate pieces, but one essential piece (the individual mandate) is defective and must be removed. …   The Act, like a defectively designed watch, needs to be redesigned and reconstructed by the watchmaker.  (73-74)

In sum, notwithstanding the fact that many of the provisions in the Act can stand independently without the individual mandate (as a technical and practical matter), it is reasonably “evident,” as I have discussed above, that the individual mandate was an essential and indispensable part of the health reform efforts, and that Congress did not believe other parts of the Act could (or it would want them to) survive independently. I must conclude that the individual mandate and the remaining provisions are all inextricably bound together in purpose and must stand or fall as a single unit. (74)

Concluding thoughts:

Regardless of how laudable its attempts may have been to accomplish these goals in passing the Act, Congress must operate within the bounds established by the Constitution. Again, this case is not about whether the Act is wise or unwise legislation. It is about the Constitutional role of the federal government. (75-76)

[FN 30]  On this point, it should be emphasized that while the individual mandate was clearly “necessary and essential” to the Act as drafted, it is not “necessary and essential” to health care reform in general. It is undisputed that there are various other (Constitutional) ways to accomplish what Congress wanted to do. (76)

The opinion is breathtaking.  I’ve read it three times now and each time come away with the realization that this judge intuitively “gets” what it is that Cato (including myself) have been saying all along.  And this despite our not having filed a brief in this particular court!

ObamaCare Falls

Federal Judge Roger Vinson has struck down the entire so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional.  Excerpts from the opinion:

It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place…

The individual mandate is outside Congress’ Commerce Clause power, and it cannot be otherwise authorized by an assertion of power under the Necessary and Proper Clause. It is not Constitutional.

[O]n the unique facts of this particular case, the record seems to strongly indicate that Congress would not have passed the Act in its present form if it had not included the individual mandate. This is because the individual mandate was indisputably essential to what Congress was ultimately seeking to accomplish. It was, in fact, the keystone or lynchpin of the entire health reform effort…

Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the entire Act must be declared void.

What’s more, it appears that the Obama administration must seek intervention from a higher court if it wants to keep implementing ObamaCare.  Even though Vinson declined to issue an injunction forbidding the administration to implement the law, he did so because of:

a long-standing presumption “that officials of the Executive Branch will adhere to the law as declared by the court. As a result, the declaratory judgment is the functional equivalent of an injunction”…”declaratory judgment is, in a context such as this where federal officers are defendants, the practical equivalent of specific relief such as an injunction”…Thus, the award of declaratory relief is adequate and separate injunctive relief is not necessary.

In other words, absent intervention from a higher court, HHS must now sit on its hands.

House Vote to Repeal ObamaCare Is More than Mere Symbolism

The symbolism of today’s House vote is striking. Within a year of ObamaCare’s enactment, the House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to repeal it.

That didn’t happen with Social Security. It didn’t happen with Medicare. Social Security and Medicare did not face sustained public opposition from the moment they were introduced in Congress. They did not pass by one vote, in the dead of night. They were not challenged as unconstitutional by half the states in the union.  They were not struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court within a year of enactment.

The House vote to repeal ObamaCare is just the latest sign that ObamaCare goes too far, that it creates a more intrusive government than the American people are willing to accept.

But the House vote is not mere symbolism, as the Obama administration would have us believe.  This vote has moved the ball forward on repeal.  This and further similar votes in both the House and Senate will reveal where members stand on repealing ObamaCare.  Voters may use that information to replace pro-ObamaCare members with people who will vote to repeal ObamaCare in the next Congress.  That’s how the political system works.

At the same time, this repeal vote makes it more likely that the Supreme Court will strike down ObamaCare. Like it or not, the Supreme Court follows the election returns. This vote shows the Court that it will not pay a price in the public’s esteem if it overturns ObamaCare.

Today’s vote makes it more likely that someone with the power to scrap ObamaCare will do so – and the Obama administration knows it.  Why else would they come out with both guns blazing against a purely “symbolic” act?

When that happens, it will be a good day for America. Real health care reform is impossible while ObamaCare remains on the books.

Supreme Court Non-Rulings More Important Than Cases It Actually Hears

While all the hot constitutional action of late, on issues ranging from Obamacare to gay marriage to immigration, has been in the lower courts — or even in Congress! — the Supreme Court still goes about its daily business.  After last year’s blockbuster term, however, this term is pretty low-profile aside from a spate of First Amendment cases (funeral protests, violent video games, school choice tax credits, public financing of election campaigns, etc.).  And so it was yesterday, when Supreme Court arguments over securities law and Western water rights were overshadowed by news of cases on which the Court decided not to rule:

  • Without comment, the Court denied an unusual request — a petition for a writ of mandamus — in the Gulf Coast global warming lawsuit, Comer v. Murphy Oil.  This is the case, you may recall, where the Fifth Circuit lost its quorum as it was about to hear the en banc (whole court) appeal of a panel ruling that allowed the suit to proceed, resulting in the odd situation of the appeal being dismissed altogether and the district court decision to dismiss the lawsuit being the law of the case.  Those complicated procedural twists would’ve made for an ungainly case, but the Supreme Court will hear a different global warming–related case, which I also previously discussed and in which Cato filed a brief
  • The Court declined to review the constitutionality of a federal ban on felons’ possession of body  armor (e.g., a bulletproof vest) — in a challenge arguing that these are issues properly left to the states, there being no interstate commerce connection.  In ruling for the government, the Ninth Circuit (always them!) had applied a precedent that antedated the seminal cases of Lopez (1995) and Morrison (2000), where — as you know if you’ve been paying attention to the Obamacare lawsuits — the Court struck down the federal Gun-Free School Zones and Violence Against Women Acts, respectively, as beyond Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.  Notably, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia in all but one footnote, filed a trenchant dissent from this cert denial (starts on page 33 here), saying that, ” Today the Court tacitly accepts the nullification of our recent Commerce Clause jurisprudence…. [The lower court’s] logic threatens the proper limits on Congress’ commerce power and may allow Congress to exercise police powers that our Constitution reserves to the States.”  Perhaps more notably, neither the Chief Justice nor Justice Alito joined Thomas’s dissent.  (H/T Josh Blackman)
  • The Court also declined to review the constitutionality of criminal convictions by non-unanimous juries — which are only allowed in Oregon (the place where this case originates) and Louisiana — denying a cert petition filed by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.  The interesting angle here is that it’s not at all clear whether (1) all the rights protected by the Bill of Rights — here the Sixth Amendment requirement that jury convictions be unanimous — are “incorporated” against the states and (2) whatever incorporation there is goes through the Due Process Clause or the Privileges or Immunities Clause (which is important for courts’ consideration of the scope of constitutional rights).  Recall that in McDonald v. Chicago, the Court extended the right to keep and bear arms to the states but could not agree on the jurisprudential methodology for doing so — yet still hinted that it would be open to revisiting these issues in a case relating to unanimous jury verdicts… but apparently not yet.
  • The Court took off its argument calendar a case regarding the sovereign immunity of Indian tribes, specifically whether that doctrine prevents the enforcement of property taxes against those legally peculiar entities.  This is a huge issue for federalism, state revenues, and a host of other policy matters — and is quite complex legally — but New York’s Oneida tribe, perhaps fearing what would have been an epic loss at the Supreme Court, here decided to waive its immunity claim and thus moot the case.

After all this “active non-action” — which may be how the government next tries to characterize the non-purchase of health insurance in its next attempt to somehow find constitutional authority for the individual mandate — the Court did release one opinion of note today.  The opinion itself, in a technical bankruptcy case regarding the compelling issue of whether a debtor can take a car-ownership deduction if she does not make loan or lease payments, is not particularly noteworthy, but the author — rookie Justice Elena Kagan — is.  And so, with 18 dry pages and over a lone dissent by Justice Scalia, the Kagan era has begun.

Obamacare Reaches Its First Appellate Court

The legal battle against Obamacare has hit the appellate court level.  In October, a district court in Detroit granted the government’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the Thomas More Law Center and four individuals.  The judge there endorsed the government’s theory that federal power under the Commerce Clause could reach the decision not to buy health insurance because that decision had a substantial effect on interstate commerce.  The plaintiffs have appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and Cato, joined by Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Randy Barnett, filed a brief supporting that appeal.

We argue that the outermost bounds of existing Commerce Clause jurisprudence – the “substantial effects doctrine” – prevent Congress from reaching intrastate non-economic activity regardless of whether it substantially affects interstate commerce. Nor under existing law can Congress reach inactivity even if it purports to act pursuant to a broader regulatory scheme. Even the district court recognized that “in every Commerce Clause case presented thus far, there has been some sort of activity. In this regard, the Health Care Reform Act arguably presents an issue of first impression.” What Congress is attempting to do here is quite literally unprecedented. “The government has never required people to buy any good or service as a condition of lawful residence in the United States.” Cong. Budget Office, The Budgetary Treatment of an Individual Mandate to Buy Health Insurance 1 (1994).

Nor has it ever said that people face civil penalties for declining to participate in the marketplace. Even in the seminal New Deal case of Wickard v. Filburn, the federal government claimed “merely” the power to regulate what farmers grew, not to mandate that people become farmers, much less to force people to purchase farm products. Finally, even if not purchasing health insurance is considered an “economic activity” – which of course would mean that every aspect of human life is economic activity – there is no legal basis for Congress to require individuals to enter the marketplace to buy a particular good or service. It is no more “proper” under the Necessary and Proper Clause for the federal government to “commandeer” individuals than to “commandeer” state officials.

Just consider our brief an early Christmas present to liberty.

ObamaCare Comes Up against the Constitution

Today POLITICO Arena askes:

How badly does today’s ObamaCare ruling set back the Democrat’s signature domestic achievement? Should Tenth Amendment enthusiasts take heart that other federal laws with which state officials disagree can be struck down?

My response:

A quick reading of Judge Henry Hudson’s opinion today striking the “individual mandate” provision of ObamaCare gives hope to those of us who have long urged, more broadly, for a restoration of limited constitutional government. As Judge Hudson put in granting summary judgment to Virginia, “the legislative process must still operate within constitutional bounds.”

The administration had argued that Congress had authority to enact and enforce the individual mandate to buy health insurance under its power to regulate interstate commerce. But Judge Hudson responded that “Neither the Supreme Court nor any federal circuit court of appeals has extended Commerce Clause powers to compel an individual to involuntarily enter the stream of commerce by purchasing a commodity in the private market.” Indeed, he noted, the administration’s reasoning could apply to “transportation, housing, or nutritional decisions. This broad definition of economic activity [to include inactivity] subject to congressional regulation lacks logical limitation.” The federal government remains, in short, one of delegated, enumerated, and thus limited powers, notwithstanding the leviathan that surrounds us today.

This is a significant setback for the administration, not least because Judge Hudson cites to a similar argument set forth by federal district Judge Roger Vinson in Vinson’s October 14 opinion denying the administration’s motion to dismiss the ObamaCare suit brought against it by 21 states, with more to follow. There will be more litigation on these issues, of course, but for today, at least, the Tenth Amendment and the limited government it implies are alive and well.