Tag: Necessary and Proper

Obamacare Defenders Grasping at Straw Men

Last week saw a splash of publicity for defenders of Obamacare’s constitutionality.  First, Yale law prof Akhil Amar had a hyperbolic op-ed in the L.A. Times, prompting a thorough fisking by Tim Sandefur, Ilya Somin, and me (among others). Then Harvard law prof Larry Tribe (who has written for the Cato Supreme Court Reviewhad one in the New York Times.  Here’s an excerpt:

Since the New Deal, the court has consistently held that Congress has broad constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce. This includes authority over not just goods moving across state lines, but also the economic choices of individuals within states that have significant effects on interstate markets. By that standard, this law’s constitutionality is open and shut. Does anyone doubt that the multitrillion-dollar health insurance industry is an interstate market that Congress has the power to regulate?

Well, actually, Prof. Tribe, you’re asking and answering the wrong questions, as I say in my letter to the editor that appeared in the Sunday Times:

First, this is indeed a “novel” issue for the Supreme Court: Never before has the federal government asserted the power to require people to engage in economic activity under the guise of regulating commerce.

Second, those challenging the law do not question Congress’s power to regulate the “multitrillion-dollar health insurance industry,” but rather distinguish such regulation from a command for individuals to purchase that industry’s products.

Third, the difference between activity and inactivity is anything but “illusory”; if Congress can regulate mere decisions, then it can tell me, for example, that I shouldn’t spend time writing letters to the editor.

And finally, imagining that Justice Antonin Scalia would support the government here because he previously ratified prohibitions on the production and consumption of marijuana is to remove the very activity-inactivity distinction that he recognized in that earlier opinion.

Most recently, the Times itself editorialized against the views Randy Barnett presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee – and Randy replied here

Setting aside the issue of why Congress is only now getting around to holding hearings on the constitutionality of a fundamental piece of legislation it passed nearly a year ago, it’s clear now at least that the proponents of limitless, extra-constitutional government are running scared.  Obamacare delenda est.

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 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.

Yes, Virginia, Congress Is Not Santa Claus and Is Bound by the Constitution

The legal battle against Obamacare continues. In June, a district court in Richmond denied the government’s motion to dismiss Virginia’s lawsuit (in opposition to which Cato filed a brief).  Despite catcalls from congressmen and commentators alike, it seems that there is, after all, a cogent argument that Obamacare is unconstitutional!  

Having survived dismissal, both sides filed cross motions for summary judgment—meaning that no material facts are in dispute and each side believes it should win on the law.  Supporting Virginia’s motion and opposing the government’s, Cato, joined by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Randy Barnett, expands in a new brief its argument that Congress has gone beyond its delegated powers in requiring that individuals purchase health insurance.

Even the cases that have previously upheld expansive federal power do not justify the ability to mandate that individuals buy a product from a private business.  Those cases still involved people that were doing something—growing wheat, running a hotel, cultivating medical marijuana.  The individual mandate, however, asserts authority over citizens that have done nothing; they’re merely declining to purchase health insurance.  This regulation of inactivity cannot find a constitutional warrant in either the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, or Congress’s taxing power.  Such legislation is not “necessary” to regulating interstate commerce in that it violates the Supreme Court’s distinction between economic activity (which often falls under congressional power as currently interpreted) and non-economic activity (which, to date, never has), it is not “proper” in that it commandeers citizens into an undesired economic transaction.  

Finally, the taxing power claim is a red herring: (a) neither the mandate nor the penalty for not complying with the mandate is a tax, and is not described as such anywhere in the legislation; (b) even if deemed a tax, it’s an unconstitutional one because it’s neither apportioned (if a direct tax) nor uniform (if an excise); (c) Congress cannot use the taxing power to enforce a regulation of commerce that is not authorized elsewhere in the Constitution.

The district court will hear arguments on the cross-motions for summary judgment in Virginia v. Sebelius later this month and we can expect a ruling by the end of the year. 

Obamacare delenda est.

Supreme Court Further Reduces Constitutional Limits on Federal Power

As Roger has just blogged, the Supreme Court in today’s Comstock decision has ”turned an instrumental power, dependent on Congress’s other powers, into an independent power.”  That is, Justice Breyer’s decision has imbued the Necessary and Proper Clause – which merely gives Congress the power to enact laws that are “necessary and proper” for “carrying into execution” one of the powers enumerated in Article I, section 8 – with independent authority to justify federal power.  Thus, in effect, Congress has the power to do anything it deems “necessary and proper” (or, indeed “convenient or useful”), quite apart from whether that thing relates to an enumerated power or not.  I explained here why this view – and Breyer’s elaboration on it during oral argument – is wrong.

Without exaggeration, the Comstock decision is one of the most harmful Supreme Court decisions in recent memory.  If there is anything worse than the Court’s radical expansion of the Necessary and Proper Clause, it is that seven justices signed onto this sweeping pronouncement.  While it isn’t surprising that Justice Breyer, joined by his “progressive” colleagues, would have such an expansive view of federal power, it is disconcerting that Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority opinion in its entirety.  And while Justice Kennedy separately counsels that “the Constitution does require the invalidation of congressional attempts to extend federal power in some instances,” it’s hard to see what those instances are in the wake of Comstock.  Justice Alito also has some qualms about the reach of the Necessary and Proper Clause but unfortunately is left satisfied that here “there is a substantial link to Congress’ constitutional powers” (adding yet another exception that swallows the constitutional rule on limited congressional power).

Only Justice Thomas, whose magisterial dissent is joined by Justice Scalia, sees today’s decision for what it is, the transformation of the Necessary and Proper Clause into a sort of federal police power, the existence of which the Court has long denied.  As Thomas says, ”the Constitution does not vest in Congress the authority to protect society from every bad act that might befall it.”  (This is of course counter not only the Court majority but also the immortal words of President George W. Bush that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”)

About the only good thing about this opinion is that it declined to expand Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause – an alternative justification for the law at issue that the government offered unsuccessfully in the court below and which Solicitor General Elena Kagan abandoned before the Supreme Court.

For more coverage of Comstock, see Josh Blackman’s series of posts and Randy Barnett at the Volokh Conspiracy.  Also, here is Cato’s brief on the case (which I summarize here) and my description of Kagan’s response to some of the points we raised.

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.