Tag: randy barnett

Obama Flip-Flops on the Individual Mandate (Again)

The individual mandate has been a tricky issue for Barack Obama, leading him to make some impressive self-reversals.

When campaigning against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama came out hard against an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, alleging that Clinton would garnish workers’ wages and that Massachusetts’ individual mandate has left many residents “worse off”:

He even dismissed an individual mandate by saying, “If a mandate was the solution, we could try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody buy a house”:

Once president, of course, Obama endorsed and signed into law both an individual mandate and an employer mandate.

During the debate over ObamaCare, Obama likewise mocked George Stephanopoulos – no really, he mocked the poor guy– for suggesting the individual mandate is a tax. Obama didn’t mince words: “I absolutely reject that notion.” The relevant exchange begins three minutes into this video:

Now, the Obama administration says the individual mandate is a tax. According to The New York Times:

When Congress required most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, Democrats denied that they were creating a new tax. But in court, the Obama administration and its allies now defend the requirement as an exercise of the government’s “power to lay and collect taxes.”…

Administration officials say the tax argument is a linchpin of their legal case in defense of the health care overhaul and its individual mandate, now being challenged in court by more than 20 states and several private organizations.

(My colleagues Randy Barnett and Ilya Shapiro explain how this flip-flop shows the constitutional challenges to ObamaCare aren’t quite as frivolous as supporters claim.)

The next time Obama is in the mood to reverse himself on the individual mandate, he might consider this statement from June 2009:

When you hear people saying, “socialized medicine,” understand that I do not know anybody in Washington who is proposing that–certainly not me.

When the government makes health insurance compulsory, that is socialized medicine.  (Why else would ObamaCare win plaudits from Fidel Castro?) It would be nice to hear the president admit it.

Government Essentially Concedes Commerce Clause Challenge to Obamacare, Calls Individual Mandate a Tax

This Sunday’s New York Times had a fascinating story about how the defense of the individual mandate has shifted from the Commerce Clause – even though the law itself is replete with boilerplate about “economic activity” – to Congress’s taxing power.  Here’s the first paragraph (h/t Jonathan Adler):

When Congress required most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, Democrats denied that they were creating a new tax. But in court, the Obama administration and its allies now defend the requirement as an exercise of the government’s “power to lay and collect taxes.”

This is huge.  After months of arguing that cases like Wickard v. Filburn (Congress can regulate the wheat farmers grow for personal consumption) and Gonzales v. Raich (Congress can regulate personal growth of state-allowed medicinal marijuana) justify the requirement that every man, woman, and child buy a health insurance policy, government lawyers (and spokesmen) now say the mandate is just a regulation accompanying a lawful tax (the penalty you pay for not buying insurance).  After I spent most of April and May criss-crossing the country debating the constitutionality of Obamacare, it turns out that my opponents were barking up the wrong tree!

But don’t just take it from me.  Here’s Georgetown law professor and Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett’s dissection of the Times story and its significance.  An excerpt:

Now there are cases that say (1) when Congress does not invoke a specific power for a claim of power, the Supreme Court will look for a basis on which to sustain the measure; (2) when Congress does invoke its Tax power, such a claim is not defeated by showing the measure would be outside its commerce power if enacted as a regulation (though there are some older, never-reversed precedents pointing the other way), and (3) the Courts will not look behind a claim by Congress that a measure is a tax with a revenue raising purpose. 

But I have so far seen no case that says (4) when a measure is expressly justified in the statute itself as a regulation of commerce (as the NYT accurately reports), the courts will look look behind that characterization during litigation to ask if it could have been justified as a tax, or (5) when Congress fails to include a penalty among all the “revenue producing” measures in a bill, the Court will nevertheless impute a revenue purpose to the measure. 

Now, of course, the Supreme Court can always adopt these two additional doctrines. It could decide that any measure passed and justified expressly as a regulation of commerce is constitutional if it could have been enacted as a tax. But if it upholds this act, it would also have to say that Congress can assert any power it wills over individuals so long as it delegates enforcement of the penalty to the IRS. Put another way since every “fine” collects money, the Tax Power gives Congress unlimited power to fine any activity or, as here, inactivity it wishes! (Do you doubt this will be a major line of questioning in oral argument?) 

Well, at least they’re not (yet) relying on Rep. John Conyers’s “Good and Welfare Clause.”  (Conyers, remember, is a lawyer and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee).

For a concise legal argument against the use of the taxing power to justify the individual mandate, see Cato’s amicus brief supporting Virginia’s challenge to the health care reform.  And for a great resource on all the state lawsuits against the new law, see this new blog/website run by Santa Clara law professor Brad Joondeph.

Ground-Breaking Constitutional Theories

As Larry Solum notes and Randy Barnett seconds, Georgetown law professor and friend-of-Cato Nick Rosenkranz has just published a tremendous article in the Stanford Law Review.  I saw an earlier version of it and can tell you that it offers one of those singular re-thinks of accepted learning.  As Randy puts it, “It is one of those rare pieces that hits you between the eyes and causes you to reconsider how you think about the Constitution.”  The article, entitled “The Subjects of the Constitution,” argues that all of us are going about our constitutional theorizing, at least with respect to judicial review, the wrong way.  Here’s the first paragraph of the abstract:

Two centuries after Marbury v. Madison, there remains a deep confusion about quite what a court is reviewing when it engages in judicial review. Conventional wisdom has it that judicial review is the review of certain legal objects: statutes, regulations. But strictly speaking, this is not quite right. The Constitution prohibits not objects but actions. Judicial review is the review of such actions. And actions require actors: verbs require subjects. So before judicial review focuses on verbs, let alone objects, it should begin at the beginning, with subjects. Every constitutional inquiry should begin with a basic question that has been almost universally overlooked. The fundamental question, from which all else follows, is the who question: who has violated the Constitution?

In thinking about who violated (or allegedly violated) the Constitution, Rosenkranz contends, we get to a truer understanding of whether the Constitution was violated, and how.  Fascinating stuff, which you can download here – and the sequel, titled “The Objects of the Constitution,” is coming soon to a legal journal near you (perhaps for next summer’s blockbuster law review article season).  (Coincidentally, today the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Nick in his first argument before the Court – a technical case regarding the award of attorneys fees under Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) – so we now know where his comparative advantage lies!)

And while I have you thinking about such high-fallutin’ theoretical matters, let me also direct your attention to a new article by an up-and-coming legal scholar, also a friend-of-Cato (and my sometime co-author), Josh Blackman.  Josh argues that the Supreme Court’s relatively new “class of one” doctrine, by which a single person can present himself as a class discriminated against in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, should be used to challenge eminent domain abuse.  That is, homeowners can establish a class of one (i.e., the person whose home the government takes) if their property is singled out for condemnation while other similarly situated properties are not.  The singled-out homeowner(s) can thus challenge the arbitrariness of the government’s taking of their property.

Josh obviously hopes that some court will accept this novel strategy of borrowing equal protection jurisprudence to check rampant eminent domain abuse and vindicate property rights.  Here you can download his article, which is titled “Equal Protection from Eminent Domain: Protecting the Home of Olech’s Class of One.”  Coincidentally, two years ago Roger Pilon wrote an essay on the Supreme Court’s most recent “class of one” decision, which you can read here.

Update on the Legal Challenges to Obamacare

Since I first issued my challenge to debate “anyone anytime anywhere” on the (un)constitutionality of Obamacare, a lot has happened.  For one thing, Randy Barnett and Richard Epstein, among many others, have published provoctive articles looking at issues beyond the Commerce Clause justification for the individual mandate – such as the argument that Congress’s tax power justifies the mandate penalty and that the new Medicaid arrangement amounts to a coercive federal-state bargain.  (Look for to a longish article from yours truly due to come out in next month’s issue of Health Affairs.)  For another, as Michael Cannon noted, seven more states – plus the National Federation of Independent Business and two individuals – have joined the Florida-led lawsuit against Obamacare.  Perhaps most importantly, such legal challenges are gaining mainstream credibility.

Here’s a brief look at some important legal filings from the past 10 days:

  1. On May 11, the U.S. government filed a response to the Thomas More Center’s lawsuit asking a federal court in Michigan to enjoin Obamacare on various grounds, including, distinct from other suits I’ve seen, religious liberty violations from having to pay for abortions.  The government argues that the plaintiffs lack standing because it’s unclear whether the individual mandate will harm them and in any event this provision doesn’t go into effect until 2014 at the earliest. The government also predictably argues that the mandate is a valid exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce and to provide for the general welfare.  There is nothing surprising here and we now await the court’s preliminary ruling.
  2. On May 12, the U.S. Citizens Association (a conservative group) and five individuals filed a new suit in Ohio, as Jacob Sullum notes.  In addition to the government powers arguments that are being made in most Obamacare lawsuits (most notably the state suits), this suit claims a violation of: the First Amendment freedom of association (the government forces people to associate with insurers); individual liberty interests under the Fifth Amendment; and the right to privacy under the Fifth Amendment’s liberty provision, Ninth Amendment retained rights, and the rights emanating from the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments (such is the Court’s convoluted jurisprudence in this area).  I’ll add that the attorney filing this suit, Jonathan Emord, worked for Cato over 20 years ago.
  3. On May 14, Florida filed an amended complaint that, along with adding seven states, two individuals, and the NFIB – so all potential standing bases are covered – beefs up relevant factual allegations and, most importantly, shores up a few legal insufficiencies to the previous claims.  This is a solid complaint, and alleges the following counts: (1) the individual mandate/penalty exceeds Congress’s power under both the Commerce Clause and taxing power and, as such, violate the Ninth and Tenth Amendments; (2) the mandate violate’s the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause; (3) the mandate penalty is an unconstitutional capitation or direct tax because it is unapportioned; (4) the Medicare expansion constitutes a coercive federal-state bargain that commandeers state officials; (5) a different formulation of coercion/commandeering; and (6) interference with state sovereignty and functions under the Tenth Amendment.   After further briefing, oral arguments on the government’s expected motion to dismiss are scheduled for September 14 in Pensacola.
  4. At least one enterprising analyst has determined that the 2,400-page bill lacks a severability clause.  This means that if one part of the bill is struck down as unconstitutional, the whole thing falls! – and would mean that the drafters committed legal malpractice of the highest order.  I guess it goes to show that nobody has read the whole thing.

Finally, if anybody is reading this is in Seattle, I’ll be debating Obamacare at the University of Washington Law School next Thursday, May 27 at 4:30pm.  This debate, sponsored by a number of groups, including the law school itself and the Federalist Society, is free and open to the public.  For those interested in other subjects, I’ll be giving a different talk to the Puget Sound Federalist Society Lawyers Chapter the day before at 6:30pm at the Washington Athletic Club ($25, rsvp to Michael Bindas at mbindas [at] ij [dot] org).  The title of that one is “Justice Elena Kagan?  What the President’s Choice Tells Us About the Modern Court and Confirmation Process.”  Please do introduce yourself to me if you attend either event.

NYT: Attorneys General Advance “a Credible Theory for Eviscerating” ObamaCare

The New York Times‘ Kevin Sack reports on the legal challenge to ObamaCare’s individual mandate launched by 20 state attorneys general:

Some legal scholars, including some who normally lean to the left, believe the states have identified the law’s weak spot and devised a credible theory for eviscerating it…

Jonathan Turley, who teaches at George Washington University Law School, said that if forced to bet, he would predict that the courts would uphold the health care law. But Mr. Turley said that the federal government’s case was far from open-and-shut, and that he found the arguments against the mandate compelling.

“There are few cases in the history of the court system that have a more significant assertion of authority by the government,” said Mr. Turley, a civil libertarian who acknowledged being strange bedfellows with the conservative theorists behind the lawsuit. “This case, more than any other, may give the court sticker shock in terms of its impact on federalism.”

Supporters claim the individual mandate will pass muster with the Supreme Court because in the past the Court has declared that the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause authorizes Congress to regulate non-commercial activity that affects interstate commerce. Sack writes:

Lawyers for the government will contend that, because of the cost-shifting nature of health insurance, people who do not obtain coverage inevitably affect the pricing and availability of policies for everyone else. That, they will argue, is enough to satisfy the Supreme Court’s test.

But to [the attorneys’ general outside counsel David] Rivkin, the acceptance of that argument would herald an era without limits.

“Every decision you can make as a human being has an economic footprint — whether to procreate, whether to marry,” he said. “To say that is enough for your behavior to be regulated transforms the Commerce Clause into an infinitely capacious font of power, whose exercise is only restricted by the Bill of Rights.”

Sack’s article contains an inaccuracy.  He writes:

Congressional bill writers took steps to immunize the law against constitutional challenge…They labeled the penalty on those who do not obtain coverage an “excise tax,” because such taxes enjoy substantial constitutional protection.

In fact, the law uses the term “excise tax” several times, but never in reference to the penalty for violating the individual mandate.  It describes that penalty solely as a penalty.  (The law does refer to the penalty for violating the employer mandate as a tax, but not an excise tax.)

As my Cato colleague Randy Barnett explains, that means supporters cannot reasonably claim that the individual mandate’s penalty is a tax, because that’s not what Congress approved.  As Cato chairman Bob Levy explains, even if supporters do claim that penalty is a tax, it would be an unconstitutional tax, because it does not fit into any of the categories of taxes the Constitution authorizes Congress to impose.

The “substantial constitutional protections” afforded to excise taxes do not protect the individual mandate.

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.