Tag: Supreme Court

U.S. v. Comstock Is About Policy Over Law

In his opinion today in United States v. Comstock, Justice Breyer gives us a textbook example of how the Supreme Court, over the years, has converted the Constitution into modern “constitutional law,” which is connected to the Constitution only occasionally. This is policy trumping law, pure and simple.

The question before the Court was whether Congress had the power, under the Constitution, to commit mentally ill, sexually dangerous prisoners beyond the date they would otherwise be released. The problem, as Breyer grants, is that Congress has only certain enumerated powers, and the only power it has to criminalize conduct, beyond the three crimes mentioned in the Constitution, is pursuant to one of those enumerated powers – in particular, through the last of its 18 enumerated powers, its power to enact laws that are “necessary and proper” for “carrying into execution” one of the previous 17 enumerated powers or ends. In other words, Congress can criminalize conduct only if doing so is necessary and proper for carrying out one of its other constitutionally authorized powers. 

Under its power to regulate interstate commerce, however, Congress has criminalized all manner of conduct not remotely related to insuring a free national market, the main function of the commerce power. The conduct criminalized here is the possession of child pornography. That’s a responsibility that belongs to the states, under state police power, not to the federal government. And that’s where today’s problem began.

But Breyer has compounded it by holding that even though the Constitution nowhere grants Congress the power to criminalize the conduct in question, Congress can invoke its instrumental power under the Necessary and Proper Clause to commit these prisoners beyond the date they would otherwise be released. In other words, he has turned an instrumental power, dependent on Congress’s other powers, into an independent power. That’s how government expands beyond the limits imposed by the Constitution.

Ask Kagan about ObamaCare

Senate Judiciary Committee members should be sure to ask Solicitor General and Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, during her upcoming confirmation hearings, whether she or her office played any part in crafting ObamaCare or the administration’s defense to the lawsuits challenging that law.  If Kagan helped to craft either, that would present a conflict of interest: when those lawsuits reach the Supreme Court, she would be sitting in judgment over a case in which she had already taken sides.

Though the Solicitor General deals with appellate matters, it is certainly possible that Kagan was consulted during the drafting of the law or the administration’s legal strategy for defending it.

The Senate Democrats who drafted ObamaCare took pains to protect it from a constitutional challenge.  The law contains several pages of findings designed to show that the Constitution’s commerce clause authorizes Congress to force Americans to purchase health insurance.  It would have been prudent for Senate Democrats to ask the government’s top appellate lawyer, who belongs to the same political party, whether they had done all they could to protect the “individual mandate” from a constitutional challenge.

Opponents began filing legal challenges to ObamaCare just minutes after President Obama signed it into law, and seven weeks before he announced Kagan’s nomination.  On Tuesday, the Obama administration filed its first response, to a private lawsuit.  According to the Associated Press, that filing “is to be followed in coming weeks and months by federal government court responses to lawsuits filed by many states.”  Regarding the case filed by 13 (soon to be 20) state attorneys general, The New York Times reports, “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.”  It is not certain, but it is certainly possible that the Office of the Solicitor General was consulted on the government’s response to lawsuits that would likely reach the Supreme Court.

If Kagan played a role in drafting ObamaCare or formulating the administration’s legal defense, and is confirmed by the Senate, propriety would dictate that she recuse herself from any challenges to that law that reach the high court.  Supporters and opponents alike should be interested to know whether the Court will judge ObamaCare with nine justices on the bench, or eight.

On the Right to Discriminate

In his post this morning, “Kagan on Military Recruitment,” Cato adjunct scholar Mark Moller touches on Cato’s 2005 amicus brief in Rumsfeld v. FAIR, which he co-authored when he was with us as editor-and-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review – a duty he performed splendidly before moving off to the legal academy. In mentioning the brief, however, Mark says that he recalls that the position it took was controversial within Cato, that it might still be, and that Cato’s legal shop might take a different view were the case presented today.

I don’t recall that the position we took was controversial within Cato, but then it was five years ago, memories fade, and much has happened in the meantime, including the filing of a brief just three months ago that nicely complements the earlier position we took. In Rumsfeld v. Fair we argued that the government could not condition a private university’s eligibility for federal grants, as the Solomon Amendment did, on the university’s giving up one of its rights, namely, its right to freedom of association. The law school plaintiffs, citing the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, sought to exclude military recruiters from campus. Pursuant to their nondiscrimination policies, that is, the law schools sought to discriminate against those they thought to be wrongly discriminating. In our brief we took no position on the policy Congress had set for the military (that question was not before the Court), nor on the rights of public universities in this matter – nor did we address the question whether Congress, under its raise-and-support-armies power, could directly order schools to admit recruiters, as the Court ultimately held.

Well we now have the public school version of that issue before us, and the Court, in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. And our brief in this case, written by Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein, argues that a public law school – Hastings, in this case – cannot condition the receipt of benefits it extends to all other student groups on CLS’s giving up its right to freedom of association. CLS, a private student group, excludes nonbelievers from its membership, which is its right. As a public institution, we argue, Hastings must treat all equally.

Thus, the principle in the two cases is the same. Private parties, pursuant to their right to freedom of association, may discriminate, whether we agree with their grounds for doing so or not. Public institutions, which belong to all of us, may not discriminate except on grounds narrowly tailored to their functions. Unfortunately, in numerous respects, that’s not our current law. For more, see here.

Estrada and Taylor on Kagan

Kagan gets an endorsement from superstar conservative appellate litigator and Bush II appellate nominee (also my old boss) Miguel Estrada here (see last paragraph).

Plus, Stuart Taylor says Kagan’s nomination could mean a more conservative Court:

Commentators on the left … complain that Kagan never compiled much of a record of aggressively championing liberal causes during her years as a law professor. Some say she was too friendly as dean of Harvard Law School to conservatives and did not recruit as many women and minorities for the faculty as diversitycrats desired.

Speaking as a moderate independent, I like everything about Kagan that the left dislikes. To borrow from my friend Harvey Silverglate, a leading Boston lawyer who champions both civil liberties and an old-fashioned liberal’s brand of political incorrectness, ‘they want people who look different but think alike.’

Kagan seems to be a woman who thinks for herself.

Taylor also highlights what many libertarians will find most troubling about her record (other than strong hints of her lack of sympathy, albeit predictable for a Democratic nominee, with the litigation interests of the business community): her apparent endorsement of the Bush administration’s legal framework for detention of enemy combatants.

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.