Tag: Supreme Court

Yes, the Federal Government Has a Broad Power to Tax, but That’s Different from Having a Green Light to Spend

I’m not a lawyer, or an expert on the Constitution, though I sometimes play one on TV.

But I can read, and I’ll agree with my friends on the left that the federal government has a broad power to tax. I wish the 16th Amendment had never been ratified, but its language gives the federal government a green light to rape and pillage.

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

That being said, the power to tax is not the same as the power to spend. And at the risk of sounding old fashioned, my big objection to the Obamacare decision is that health care is not listed as one of the federal government’s enumerated powers in Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution.

Sadly, that horse got out of the barn many decades ago, culminating in a horrible 1942 Supreme Court decision that said a man couldn’t grow crops on his own land to feed his own animals for consumption by his own family.

But let’s look at the bright side. Even though the Obamacare case was decided incorrectly, at least the judiciary is beginning to reconsider these issues, thanks in large part to the work of the Cato Institute’s legal scholars and adjunct legal scholars.

P.S. While the federal government has a broad power to tax, I should add that this doesn’t - or at least shouldn’t - vitiate other provisions of the Constitution. This is why it is so disappointing that we’ve seen the erosion of key civil liberties such as the presumption of innocence and the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

P.P.S. This Michael Ramirez cartoon about Obamacare and the Constitution is amusing, though that’s not much solace given what happened. And here’s another one of his cartoons, this one on the broader theme of Obama vs. the Founding Fathers.

P.P.S. Speaking of cartoons, this one seems especially appropriate today.

If you like that one, you can see another Breen cartoon here.

Supreme Court Finally Resists Temptation to Cite Foreign Law When Interpreting the U.S. Eighth Amendment

The Supreme Court decided more than just the Arizona immigration and Montana campaign-finance cases yesterday; by a 5-4 margin, it struck down state laws that impose mandatory sentences of life-without-parole (LWOP) on juveniles who have committed murder.  The Court left open the possibility of discretionary juvenile LWOP sentences, provided that the sentencing judge takes into account the defendant’s youth and maturity.

I don’t have much to say about this ruling—Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is too hopelessly subject to national surveys, multi-factor balancing tests, and the whims of Justice Kennedy to begin to discuss here—other than to point out one glaring ray of light: unlike past such cases, the Court did not cite foreign law as support for its ruling.  I’ve pointed out the problems with doing that many times before, and Cato even joined a brief two years ago specifically on this issue in the case involving juvenile LWOP  for non-homicide crimes.  Suffice it to say, whatever you think about “cruel and unusual punishment,” the only society whose ”evolving standards of decency” are relevant to interpretations of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment is the United States.

More on this point from Hans Bader over at CEI’s blog.

This Is What Political Judging Looks Like

Today, as I predicted six months ago, the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Montana Supreme Court’s attempt to nullify the controversial 2010 decision of Citizens United v. FEC. The Montana Supreme Court had essentially ruled that Citizens United is a decision based on facts rather than law—that is, that Montana’s situation of corporate corruption in elections was factually unique, thus exempting the state from compliance with Citizens United. In an admirable dissent, Justice James C. Nelson explained precisely where the court went wrong:

Unquestionably, Montana has its own unique history.  No doubt Montana also has compelling interests in preserving the integrity of its electoral process and in encouraging the full participation of its electorate.  And Montana may indeed be more vulnerable than other states to corporate domination of the political process.  But the notion argued by the Attorney General and adopted by the Court—that these characteristics entitle Montana to a special “no peeing” zone in the First Amendment swimming pool—is simply untenable under Citizens United.

Admittedly, I have never had to write a more frustrating dissent.  I agree, at least in principle, with much of the Court’s discussion and with the arguments of the Attorney General.   More to the point, I thoroughly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.  I  agree, rather,  with the eloquent and, in my view, better-reasoned dissent of Justice Stevens.  As a result, I find myself in the distasteful position of having to defend the applicability of a controlling precedent with which I profoundly disagree.

That said, this case is ultimately not about my agreement or disagreement with the Attorney General or our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the Citizens United decision. Whether we agree  with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment is irrelevant.  In accordance with our federal system of government, our obligations here are to acknowledge that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the United States Constitution is, for better or for worse, binding on this Court and on the officers of this state, and to apply the law faithful to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s reliably liberal justices did not take the same admirable position as Justice Nelson. In a situation when they should have unanimously asserted the Supreme Court’s position as the final expositor the Constitution and chastised the Montana Supreme Court for its temerity, justices Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Ginsberg instead decided to re-visit their opposition to Citizens United. All four justices re-registered their dissent with Citizens United, but they did not go so far as to vote to re-hear the case. And given that only four votes are required to grant certiorari, re-hearing the case was an option available to them. It’s good they did not go this far. However, while I am a believer in registering principled dissents, this was not the time to do so. In addition to being constitutionally incorrect, overturning Citizens United after just two years on the books would have severely impaired the legitimacy of the Court.

This is what political judging looks like. While it has become de rigueur to refer to the five conservative justices as being mere pawns of their political opinions, such attacks are hardly ever leveled against the four reliable liberal justices. Here, however, they were driven by their political opinions rather than their duties as Supreme Court justices bound to ensure that the Constitution applies equally in every state.

My colleague John Samples has more here.

Supreme Court: Immigration Reform Needs to Come from Congress

Everyone will find something to quibble with in today’s highly technical ruling in Arizona v. United States, which is not an indication of some baby-splitting grand compromise but rather that this is a really complex area of law.  The Court, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy and joined by four other justices including Chief Justice Roberts, upheld (at least against facial challenge) Section 2(B) of Arizona’s SB 1070, which requires law enforcement officers to inquire into the immigration status of those they’ve lawfully detained if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally.  The Court found, however, that federal law trumped (“preempted”) three other provisions: Section 3, which makes it a state crime to violate federal alien registration laws (because Congress so comprehensively “occupied the field” of alien registration); Section 5(C), which makes it a state crime for an illegal immigrant to “knowingly apply for work, solicit work in a public place or perform work as an employee or independent contractor” (because it conflicts with the method of enforcement chosen by Congress – regulating employers rather than employees); and Section 6, which allows law enforcement officers to arrest someone they have probable cause to believe has committed a deportable offense (because questions of removability are entrusted to federal discretion).  Justices Scalia and Thomas wrote partial dissents to say they would’ve upheld the entire law.  Justice Alito also wrote separately to say he would’ve only found Section 3 preempted.

My own view most closely aligns with Judge Alito’s—I would uphold three of the four provisions, though for me 5(C) is the problematic one—but more important than the legal weeds are the two policy guides the Supreme Court has given:

  1. The federal government has significant, near-exclusive powers to regulate immigration and even state laws that merely “mirror” federal immigration laws are on shaky legal ground;*
  2. Although federal lawmaking trumps state lawmaking, federal policymaking does not.  Prosecutorial discretion, resource allocation decisions, and other policy processes do not preempt duly enacted state law.

In short, immigration policy by either state action or executive whim won’t cut it. The federal government—Congress and the president, working out that grand compromise—needs to fix our broken immigration system.

* Note that most of SB 1070 has been in effect since July 2010.  The federal government only challenged six of its provisions, and two (regarding transporting/harboring illegal aliens) were upheld by the district court, without further appeal by the government.  In other words, state laws dealing purely with state prerogatives (such as crime or business regulation) are on much firmer legal ground.

The IRS’s Illegal Employer Tax

With all eyes on the Supreme Court, whose ruling on ObamaCare’s individual mandate could come as early as today, almost no one noticed that last month the IRS imposed an illegal tax on employers of up to $3,000 per worker.

Jonathan Adler and I explain in today’s USA Today that this illegal tax is the indirect but very real result of the IRS offering ObamaCare’s tax credits and subsidies in health insurance “exchanges” created by the federal government, even though ObamaCare restricts those entitlements – explicitly, laboriously, and unambiguously – to Exchanges established by states.

That illegal action has the effect of imposing ObamaCare’s $2,000-$3,000 per worker tax (i.e., the “employer mandate”) on employers who otherwise would be exempt (i.e., employers in states that do not create an Exchange). Perhaps President Obama thought “taxation without representation” would be a winning campaign slogan.

If the Supreme Court fails to strike down ObamaCare’s employer mandate, Exchanges, and health insurance tax credits and subsidies, this thoroughly unconstitutional IRS rule will begin illegally taxing employers in 2014.

Reps. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) and Phil Roe (R-TN) have introduced a resolution under the Congressional Review Act that would block the rule. Barring that, expect more angry employers to haul ObamaCare into federal court.

Adler discusses the IRS rule here:

Adler on How the IRS Is Rewriting ObamaCare to Tax Employers

Jonathan H. Adler is the Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University.  In this new Cato Institute video, Adler explains how a recently finalized IRS rule implementing ObamaCare taxes employers without any statutory authority.

For more, see this previous Cato video, “States Should Flatly Reject ObamaCare Exchanges”:

See also our November 2011 op-ed on this IRS rule that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.