Thus far, the argument among law professors over the constitutionality of Obamacare has been well represented by scholars who have made pro and con arguments over particular clauses in the constitution, such as the interstate commerce clause, or the tax power. In this post, I would like to examine an insight by Jonathan Turley, which points the way to strong, recent, and repeated precedent suggesting that Obamacare is unconstitutional.
Let’s begin by getting rid of the red herring that questioning the constitutionality of Obamacare requires denying the constitutionality of the New Deal and the Great Society. Orin asks:
In your view, which of the following federal programs or agencies are constitutional?
(a) Social Security
(b) The Federal Trade Commission
(d) The Securities and Exchange Commission
(e) The new Health Care mandate
In my view, (a), (b), (c), and (d), are constitutional, but (e) is not. My answer is based on using “constitutional” in the normal sense of the word as it appears in most modern public dialogue. That is, “Should a judge who accurately applies existing precedents, and other sources of legal authority, find the law to be constitutional?” This is the question that federal district judges and circuit court of appeal judges will have to answer, since they have no authority to reject Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court can change its own precedents, but for for purposes of argument, I am presuming that the Supreme Court would not overrule any precedents.
As Jack Balkin, Sandy Levinson, and others have ably pointed out, “constitutional” can be used in a different way, in that people express aspirations about what the Constitution should mean, even if that meaning is contrary to current precedents. For example, a person in 1946 might say “Discrimination against women is unconstitutional.” That person would not be describing the current state of the law, but would be making an argument that constitutional intepretation should be changed. Often, these aspirational statements do become constitutional law, especially when they win the hearts and minds of the public. Some of the 1930s decisions upholding parts of the New Deal or its state analogues are examples of the success of this aspirational constitutional rhetoric. For example, the statement in 1890 that “mortgage relief laws are constitutional and do not violate the Contract Clause” would have been incorrect in regard to Supreme Court precedent, and was utterly contrary to the original meaning of the Contract Clause. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court later changed its intepretation of the Contract Clause, so that the aspirational statement became an accurate description of the law.
People are free to argue all they want, on the basis of aspiration, original meaning, or anything else, that items (a) through (d) on Orin’s list are unconstitutional. If these people persuade enough of their fellow Americans, perhaps the Court might eventually narrow or overturn some of the precedents which uphold (a) through (d). However, my argument is based on the law as it actually exists today, and it presumes the continuing validity of all the New Deal and Great Society precedents.
Some parts of Obamacare, such as the calorie labeling requirement for restaurant chains, appear to be solidly within the scope of existing precedents. (At least based on the discussion I’ve heard thus far.)
In contrast, the individual mandate to purchase health insurance is not. It “is unprecedented in our jurisprudence.” Romer v. Evans (1996). It is possible to make arguments for extensions of cases such as Wickard, Raich, and Sonzinsky in support of the mandate. However, such arguments are a plea for extending those cases, not for merely applying them. For example, an application of Wickard/Raich might be a law against a person manufacturing her own medicine at home, rather than purchasing the medicine through the federally-controlled market.
No prior case stands for the proposition that Congress may use the interstate commerce power to order persons to buy a particular product, or may use the tax power to punish people for choosing not to purchase a particular product. I can imagine a judicial opinion that builds on the foundation of Wickard, Raich, and Sonzinsky, and extends those cases much further, in order to uphold the mandate. The Court might do so, but the Court would be doing much more than merely applying precedent.
At this stage in the debate, the only cited instance of Congress ever forcing people to buy particular products have come under the congressional exercise of the enumerated militia powers in Article I, section 8, clause 16, “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia. . .” Here, the congressional power to mandate is provided in the text itself. Further, the original understanding of the militia was that the militiamen “were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time.” United States v. Miller (1939). The congressional power to provide for arming the militia straightforwardly includes the power to tell militiamen what kind of arms to bring to duty.
The federal militia powers come from the state militia powers, which (by enacting the Constitution) the People and the States chose to give (at least concurrently) to Congress. No one could possibly dispute that state militia powers included the power to require militiamen to bring certain types of arms to duty, and thus to require the purchase of such arms if necessary. The federal power to regulate commerce among the several states was likewise granted to Congress from the powers which were then possessed by the States and by the People. There was certainly no understanding in 1789 that state power to regulate interstate commerce (e.g., by inspecting goods at ports of entry) included the power to compel individuals to purchase goods in commerce.
So neither the Militia arming clause nor any cases provide precedent for the unprecedented mandate to purchase insurance. At best, the mandate is in a constitutional gray zone. To resolve the gray zone question, we are not limited to wondering whether to greatly extend some prior cases on the interstate commerce clause or the tax power. In addition, we can consider the structure of the Constitution itself.
As Jonathan Turley has written, allowing the individual mandate to stand “could amount to a ‘do not resuscitate’ order for federalism.” If judges find this argument (in the greatly eleborated form that will eventually be presented to the courts) to be persuasive, then the Supreme Court precedent is very clear. Several recent cases, including Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (1996), Alden v. Maine (1999), City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), United States v. Morrison (2000), Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett (2001), and Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs (2003) have demonstrated the Court’s persistent determination to defend state sovereign immunity. Some of these cases involved the Eleventh Amendment, and some involved the Fourteenth (Cong. powers under sect. 5). In one case (Hibbs), the federal abrogation of sovereign immunity was upheld, partly because the federal law involved a state practice (sex discrimination) that was already unconstitutional.
These decisions have been heavily criticized by the academic Left, and the critics have pointed out that these decisions have much less to do with the constitutional text, or with original meaning of the text, than they do with the Court’s broad view of constitutional structure: the essential nature of state sovereignty, and one of the attributes of sovereignty, namely sovereign immunity.
According to the Court, a Congressional statute making it easier for states to be sued for patent infringement is such a serious violation of federalism that it must be held unconstitutional. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Board v. College Savings Bank (1999). (Eugene Volokh’s article on the case is here.) In terms of the practical harm to state sovereignty, the congressional law on patent suits is to Obamacare as a house cat is to lion.
The extensive line of recent cases on state sovereignty is complemented by the Ninth Amendment. The Ninth Amendment may be read to create a presumption of liberty. Randy Barnett, Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (2005). Or it may be read as requirement that enumerated federal powers be narrowly construed so that they do not violate the retained natural rights of the people, including the people’s right of self-government in the states. Kurt Lash, The Lost History of the Ninth Amendment (2009). Either reading raises further doubts about the constitutionality of the insurance mandate.
As the joint complaint of the 13 Attorneys General has argued, Obamacare constitutes an immense assault on federalism. If Obamacare is upheld, the states may be well on the way to becoming like the Roman Senate in 100 A.D.: formerly the an essential component of republican sovereignty, but now a hollowed remnant, possessing the forms of the old republic but really functioning as a mere puppet of the Leviathan.
“[F]ederalism was the unique contribution of the Framers to political science and political theory,” wrote Justice Kennedy. United States v. Lopez (1995) (concurring). To declare Obamacare to be unconstitutional, the Court may take into account the importance of preserving the unique contribution of Our Federalism. In doing so, the Court need not overrule a single precedent, nor need the Court cast into doubt any of the creations of the New Deal or the Great Society. Instead, the Court may simply choose not to invent unprecedented extensions of the interstate commerce power and the tax power.
From federal district court to the Supreme Court, the judges and justices who decide to leave constitutional doctrine exactly as it is today will decline to validate the unprecedented exercise of power in Obamacare. The last fourteen years of the Supreme Court determination to defend our precious constitutional system of dual sovereignty gives reason to hope that the courts will apply the existing law rather than make up new law, and that the insurance mandate will be declared unconstitutional.
And then: Over two thousand pages of laws certainly contain items (e.g., restaurant menu labeling, tanning taxes) that theoretically could have been enacted separately from the mandate, and might be considered severable. But the main provision of Obamacare–turning private insurance companies into ultra-regulated public utilities–makes no sense without the individual mandate; it would not have been enacted without the mandate, and it is not severable.