Yes, Says Virginia, There Are Limits on Federal Power

Today, the Fourth Circuit became the first appellate court in the nation to enter the Obamacare fray.  It heard two very similar cases back-to-back, Liberty University’s, in which the government won in the district court, and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s, in which Judge Henry Hudson struck down the individual mandate back in December.  Going into the hearing, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s legal team had done a wonderful job setting out the reasons why Hudson was correct and why Congress went too far in asserting the unprecedented power to compel people to enter into contracts with private insurance companies.  I was proud to sign Cato’s brief supporting that position and continue to maintain that the federal government cannot require people to buy goods or services under the guise of regulating interstate commerce.  Moreover, the individual mandate is the linchpin of the overall legislative scheme (as everyone concedes), so if it falls, the rest of the law—at least its central provisions—must fall with it.

Indeed, the Fourth Circuit judges—a Clinton appointee and two Obama appointees, in a random selection unfortunate to the challengers—struggled with the idea that Congress could regulate “inactivity.”  The government—which has now determined that the challenges are so serious as to send the solicitor general to argue in lower courts—claimed that Congress can do anything it wants relating to anything that in any way affects a national market such as that for health care.  Given that decisions not to buy insurance, or to self-insure, or not to pay for health care until presented with a bill, clearly have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, the argument went, Congress can require people to buy health insurance.  The judges seemed to agree to a certain extent but were still troubled by the textual truism that a power to “regulate” implies an active object or activity that is being regulated.  And indeed, if a “decision” not to buy something or the state of not having acquired something is all that is required to invoke congressional jurisdiction, then the Constitution’s enumerations of federal power mean absolutely nothing.

The government is understandably unconcerned with articulating a principled limit on its own power, and this particular panel of judges may find some way to avoid dealing with the activity/inactivity conundrum, but one can only hope that the Supreme Court ultimately rejects the claim that Congress can grant itself unlimited power simply by legislating in an area of great national concern.

Starting at 2pm Eastern, you can stream the oral arguments from the Court’s website here.