Tag: Comstock

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.

The Necessary & Proper Clause Isn’t a Blank Check

Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus and I have an article about to be published in the Syracuse Law Review that grapples with United States v. Comstock, last term’s big Necessary and Proper Clause case that could have big ramifications on the Obamacare litigation (but probably not, we argue). 

Here’s the abstract:

In United States v. Comstock, the Supreme Court upheld § 4248 of the Adam Walsh Act, which allows for the civil commitment of federal prisoners deemed “sexually dangerous” for an indefinite period after they’ve completed their sentences. The case dealt with that most basic of constitutional questions: Where does Congress find its authority to enact a particular law?

Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, found warrant for § 4248 in Congress’s power “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” its other powers. But which of Congress’s enumerated powers does § 4248 execute? And is § 4248 necessary and proper for executing that power? Unfortunately, the Court focused mainly on the second question, arguing that Congress has “broad authority” to enact laws to further its enumerated powers. Moreover, the five-factor “test” Breyer offered asked not whether § 4248 was necessary and proper for executing an enumerated power, but for “a jumble of unenumerated ‘authorities,’” as Justice Thomas put it in a searching dissent joined by Justice Scalia.

Fortunately, Justice Breyer’s opinion was joined in full by only four other justices — with Justices Kennedy and Alito writing separately to emphasize the strict requirements that federal laws invoking the Necessary and Proper Clause must meet (even if those requirements were satisfied here). These concurrences, along with an impracticable majority opinion and a logically powerful dissent, suggest that Comstock may have limited application beyond the four corners of civil commitment law. Most prominently, Comstock seems to have little effect on the ongoing Obamacare litigation.

Read the whole thing.  Also read Ilya Somin’s article on Comstock in last year’s Cato Supreme Court Review.

First, They Came for the Sex Offenders

First, they came for the sex offenders. I am not a sex offender, but I opposed the civil commitment of sex offenders by the federal government because it is not an activity within the enumerated powers of Congress. The Supreme Court decided otherwise in Comstock, with the exception of Justices Thomas and Scalia.

Next, they will come for suspected terrorists. As Dahlia Lithwick (who I rarely agree with – here is her commentary on the Heller case) points out, the Supreme Court’s decision in Comstock may have some frightening implications for domestic preventive detention of terrorism suspects in lieu of criminal prosecution.

I saw this firsthand last summer when I attended a scholars meeting with the Obama administration’s Detention Policy Task Force (the same one that Andy McCarthy publicly refused to attend). I gave my views on where detention policy should go, as did a conference room full of experts on the laws of armed conflict and criminal justice (who shall remain anonymous, as this meeting was off the record). I was dismayed to hear a law professor from a prestigious university propose a system of preventive detention as the logical solution to countering terrorism. Worse yet, to make this law less provocative, the professor further proposed that preventive detention should be applied in other criminal contexts, so that the department of pre-crime would not be seen as unfairly targeting only enemy combatants overseas. This professor had taught many of the Department of Justice staffers in the room, and I looked around to see heads nodding at the suggestion.

I responded forcefully that such a system is antithetical to American traditions of due process. Battlefield detention is necessary to incapacitate insurgents and terrorists overseas, and is often employed in lieu of killing them. Broad powers of detention without trial in the criminal context do not make Guantanamo less controversial; they bring it on to our shores and in to our courtrooms. If we have enough information to show that someone is a threat by a preponderance of the evidence in order to detain them, we probably have enough to indict them for conspiracy. One of the reasons that few people turn to political violence in the United States is that the Bill of Rights bars the government from telling the citizenry how to worship, what to think, and what they can say. Generally speaking, you have to actually be a criminal to get charged as one.

Would the votes in Comstock translate into a Supreme Court ratification of such a system? Probably not, since Kennedy and Alito stressed in their concurrences that the circumstances in Comstock are unique. And Hamdi showed us that Scalia takes habeas corpus rights seriously when it comes to citizens. Unfortunately, only Stevens shared this view and he looks to be replaced by Elena Kagan, who argued that civil commitment in Comstock was an extension of Congress’ power to create and run a prison system (not an enumerated power). But this isn’t about counting the noses currently on the Court; it’s about creating a new normal where the people in prison are detainees, not defendants.

Unfortunately, there are more than a few people in favor of such a system. Jack Goldsmith and Neal Katyal (now the acting Solicitor General) propose a terrorism court. Sens.  McCain and Lieberman want to treat all terrorism suspects as enemy combatants. Sens.  Lieberman and Brown want to strip the citizenship of terrorism suspects and try them by military commission. Sens. Graham and McCain plan to close Guantanamo by creating a preventive detention court. Take a conservative plan to deal with enemy combatants captured on the other side of the world, strap on some liberal angst over tea parties and militia groups, and you’ve got a bipartisan plan for wholesale degradation of everyone’s liberties.

And when the proposal comes, the first thing they’ll say is that this is how we already deal with sex offenders.

George W. Bush Is Not Missed

An atrocious ruling from the Supreme Court yesterday in United States v. Comstock, as has been noted.  It is no real surprise that the liberals on the Court ruled the way they did.  They believe in big government and need a way to get around a Constitution that set up a federal government of limited and enumerated powers.  Thus, we are told a “living” Constitution “evolves” in such a way as to accomodate the administrative state that is all around us.  But the law at issue in the Comstock case did not arise during the Clinton years.  The Adam Walsh Child Protection Act was championed by conservative legislators  in the Congress and signed by Bush.

Until the Comstock ruling was issued, court watchers were unsure of how committed Bush’s Supreme Court picks (Roberts and Alito) were to the constitutional doctrine of enumerated powers.  The answer has now arrived: Not much.  As the Bush memoir makes its way to the bookstores, I expect there will be a good deal of spin about how good the Bush presidency was.  Well, it wasn’t.

More here, here, and here.

Why Do Libertarians Care about Federalism?

That’s the question NYU law professor Rick Hills asks over at PrawfsBlaws:

So why do American libertarians think that federalism is consistent with their commitment to individual liberty? Why not, instead, support a strong national government that can suppress subnational trade wars and protect a robust set of national liberties? What’s the payoff, in terms of individual liberty, from protecting subnational jurisdictions’ exclusive jurisdiction over certain topics?

In other words, if government is bad, why do we want a multiplicity of governments – federal, state, local – all presumably restricting individual liberty in some way?

Well, with all due respect to Prof. Hills – who also graciously commended Cato’s brief in Comstock, in which we argue that that Congress cannot enact a civil commitment statute for sexual predators because there is no such enumerated power and it cannot be inferred from the Necessary & Proper Clause – his analysis erroneously assumes that libertarians (he specifically mentions Cato, our senior fellow Randy Barnett, and our adjunct scholar Ilya Somin) are results-oriented in our approach to constitutional interpretation.  And we shouldn’t pursue federalism, he says, because it’s against our interests.

Both of these premises are flawed.  I won’t go into much detail because Randy and (the other) Ilya have already provided reactions at the Volokh Conspiracy here and here, with which I agree.  First , we like federalism because that’s the system the Constitution set up and luckily, the Constitution is, for the most part, a libertarian document.  Second, the Framers set up the Constitution that way because the different levels of government would exist not to multiply power-hungry bureaucrats’ opportunities for mischief but precisely to disallow dangerous aggregations of power.  So from the get-go there was no possibility of federal tyranny and, after the Fourteenth Amendment empowered Congress and federal courts to protect individual rights against state infringement, there was to be no state tyranny either.

And so, much as we like the strict limitations on Congress’s power – the express enumerations of Article I, section 8, the Commerce Clause, etc. – we also like the Due Process, Equal Protection, and Privileges or Immunities Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.  There is thus no conflict between federalism as a structural constitutional provision that promotes liberty and other, “anti-federalist” provisions that also promote liberty.  In practice that means there is no conflict between arguing that Obamacare exceeds the federal government’s authority while asking the Supreme Court to strike down Chicago’s handgun ban.  The original meaning of the relevant constitutional provisions support both arguments – and both arguments enhance liberty!

It really is a remarkable document, this Constitution.  Too bad its proper understanding has been lost

For related thoughts on this fascinating debate, Randy proposes a constitutional amendment that might get us back to the federalism we once knew while (the other) Ilya dispels another of Prof. Hills’s minor premises, that European libertarians diverge from Americans on the issue of federalism.

Actually, Justice Breyer, the Constitution Enumerates Specific Powers, not Limitations on Otherwise Plenary Federal Power

Today I went to the Court to watch the argument in United States v. Comstock, which I blogged about previously and in which Cato filed an amicus brief.  As I also blogged previously, Cato’s arguments so concerned the government that the solicitor general spent four pages of her reply brief going after them.

At issue is a 2006 federal law that provides for the civil commitment of any federal prisoner after the conclusion of his sentence upon the appropriate official’s certification that the soon-to-be-released prisoner is “sexually dangerous.”  The problem is that, while states have what’s called a “police power” to handle this sort of thing – to appropriately deal with with threats to society from the dangerously insane and so forth – the federal government’s powers are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution.  And I’m sorry, there’s no power to civilly commit people who have committed no further crime beyond those for which they’ve already been duly punished.

The government, having abandoned its Commerce Clause argument – a big loser in the lower courts – relied at the Supreme Court on the Necessary and Proper Clause.  This clause says that Congress shall have the power to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution [the specific powers listed in Article I, section 8], and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States.”

In other words, we have a government of delegated and enumerated, and therefore limited powers.  As Ryan Lirette put it in National Review Online last week,  ”Congress may not search every corner of our country looking for problems to vanquish.  Instead, Congress must be able to justify each law it passes with a specific congressional authorization.”

The solicitor general contends that civilly committing the sexually dangerous is “necessary and proper” to regulating the federal prison system – which itself is not an enumerated power but ancillary to enforcing federal criminal laws that Congress is appropriately empowered to make.  At the argument, solicitor general Kagan further justified the relevant provision as related to “responsibly” releasing federal prisoners.

I don’t think her “cascading powers” theory of the Necessary and Proper Clause is a winner – for reasons I describe in my recent podcast – and Justice Scalia also wasn’t convinced.  Justice Breyer, however, at one point asked where the Constitution prohibited the federal government from “help[ing] with” a problem it identified (see page 31 of the transcript) and in general was hesitant to find limits to congressional action to solve big policy areas.

Breyer has it all backward: We don’t operate on the premise that the government has full plenary power to do whatever it thinks is best, for the “general welfare,” for “the children,” for “society,” or for any particular group, checked only by specific prohibitions.  Instead, our system of government – our constitutional rule of law – provides for islands of government involvement in a sea of liberty.  It is individual people who can do whatever they want that isn’t prohibited by law, not the government.

And so we’ll see soon enough which vision of the relationship between citizen and state the Supreme Court embraces.  Along with Justice Breyer, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg also were not very sympathetic to the federalism and libertarian arguments ably presented by federal public defender G. Alan Dubois.  Along with Justice Scalia, Justice Alito was (refreshingly) skeptical of undue government power – and one would expect (the silent) Justice Thomas to be in that category as well.  Justice Sotomayor also asked some interesting questions inquiring into the federal government’s ability to hold someone indefinitely – including on the relationship of that power to the Commerce Clause authority underlying most federal exercise of power – so she could go either way.  Finally, the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy were, uncharacteristically, not all too active – seeming to question both sides equally – so it’s hard to predict how the Court will ultimately rule.

Cato’s Legal Arguments Worry U.S. Government

Last month, Cato (joined by Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett) filed a brief in United States v. Comstock, a case regarding the constitutionality of a law authorizing the federal government to civilly commit anyone in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons whom the attorney general certifies to be “sexually dangerous.” The effect of such an action is to continue the certified person’s confinement after the expiration of his prison term, without proof of a new criminal violation.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, “the use of federal power here is unconstitutional because it is not tied to any of Congress’s limited and enumerated powers.” Moreover, the government’s reliance on the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article I, Section 8), “is misplaced because that clause grants no independent power but merely ‘carries into execution’ the powers enumerated elsewhere in that section.” The commitment of prisoners after their terms end simply cannot fit into one of the enumerated powers.

While we of course hope that the Supreme Court pays attention to our brief, we know that Solicitor General Elana Kagan, at least, is concerned enough about our arguments to spend several pages of the government’s reply brief addressing them (see pages 5-9). 

For more on Comstock, see its case page on SCOTUSwiki, which now has all the briefs and will around the Jan. 12 argument date be populated with argument previews and reviews, as well as links to media coverage.