Fourth Circuit Dismisses Two Challenges to the Individual Mandate on Jurisdictional Grounds

On Thursday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued two decisions dismissing challenges to the Obama health care plan’s individual mandate on jurisdictional grounds. All three judges on the panel were Democratic appointees, including two chosen by President ObamaNeither ruling reached the merits of the question of whether the individual mandate is constitutional. Virginia v. Sibelius is by far the better known case, because it was brought by the Virginia state government. But Liberty University v. Geithner is perhaps more interesting.

In the Virginia case, the Fourth Circuit dismissed Virginia’s challenge to the mandate because they ruled that the state lacked standing to challenge it. Virginia had based its standing on argument on the grounds that it had passed a state law exempting Virginians from being forced to buy health insurance. Normally, states automatically have standing to challenge federal laws that supersede their own legislation. But the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Virginia law was not a genuine exercise of state sovereignty, but merely a symbolic protest against the federal individual mandate. In my view, Virginia’s motives for passing the law should have been irrelevant to the question of how it affected standing. Moreover, a decision not to regulate is just as much an exercise of sovereign authority as a decision to impose a regulation. In addition, I think Virginia should also have gotten standing on entirely unrelated grounds. It could have taken advantage of the “special solicitude” for state governments that the Supreme Court established in Massachusetts v. EPA. Virginia probably erred in putting all of its standing eggs in one basket. It should have emphasized Massachusetts v. EPA as well as its anti-mandate law.

Be that as it may, this decision is unlikely to matter much in the long run. Even if the Supreme Court also rejects Virginia’s suit for lack of standing, there are lots of other anti-mandate plaintiffs – both state governments and individuals – who clearly do have standing, as the Fourth Circuit admits (at least in the case of the individuals). So the issue will get to the Supreme Court one way or another.

Liberty University v. Geithner is more interesting because it is the first court decision to endorse the federal government’s argument that the individual mandate is a tax. Up till now, that argument has been consistently rejected by every judge who has ruled on it, including several who concluded that the mandate is constitutional on other grounds. The majority opinion only ruled that the mandate qualifies as a “tax” as defined by the Anti-Injunction Act, which forbids court challenges to “taxes” prior to the time when the IRS tries to actually collect the money. According to the majority, the AIA defines taxes more broadly than the Constitution, and encompasses all fines that are collected by the IRS through the normal tax enforcement system. I think Judge Andre Davis’ dissenting opinion does a good job of rebutting this extremely broad interpretation of the AIA. And I think it likely that the Supreme Court will side with him and the other nine judges who have ruled the same way rather than with the Fourth Circuit majority. However, if the latter prevails, it could make it impossible for individuals to challenge the mandate until it takes official effect in 2014.

In a concurring opinion, Judge James Wynn goes further than the majority (which he also joined), and argues that the mandate is a tax not just under the AIA, but under the Constitution. He has thereby become the first of the eleven federal judges who have considered this question who endorsed the constitutional tax argument. The other ten judges (including Judge Davis) all concluded that the mandate is a regulatory penalty, not a tax. Obviously, if the federal government wins on this point, the mandate would be constitutional even if it is not authorized by the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause.

On balance, I think Wynn’s argument is wrong. For reasons I explain here, the federal government’s Tax Clause argument (which Wynn echoes) is unpersuasive:

As recently as 1996, the Supreme Court reiterated the crucial distinction between a penalty and a tax. It ruled that “[a] tax is a pecuniary burden laid upon individuals or property for the purpose of supporting the Government,” while a penalty is “an exaction imposed by statute as punishment for an unlawful act” or – as in the case of the individual mandate – an unlawful omission. The individual mandate is a clear example of a penalty, where Congress requires people to purchase health insurance, and then punishes them with a fine if they fail to comply.

In September 2009, President Obama himself noted that “for us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase.” He was right. If the mandate qualifies as a tax merely because it punishes violators with a fine, then Congress could require Americans to do almost anything on pain of having to pay a fine if they refuse. It could use this power to force citizens to buy virtually any product, including broccoli, General Motors cars, or anything else.

Even if the individual mandate does somehow qualify as a tax, it is not one of the types of taxes that Congress is authorized to impose. The Constitution gives Congress the power to enact several types of taxes: Excise taxes, duties and imposts, income taxes, and “direct taxes” that must be apportioned among the states in proportion to population.

No one, including the federal government, claims that the individual mandate is a duty or an impost. The individual mandate is not an income tax because an income tax must target some “accession to wealth,” in the words of Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Glenshaw Glass Co., the leading Supreme Court case on the subject. The fine imposed by the mandate does not target any accession to wealth or flow of income. It simply forces individuals to pay a penalty if they disobey the federal government’s regulatory requirement. The fact that low-income individuals are exempted does not change this analysis. A fine for jaywalking would not become an income tax if low-income individuals were exempted from it…..

It is even more implausible to suggest that the mandate is an excise tax. Excise taxes apply to economic transactions or the use of property of some kind. For example, a tax on the sale of alcoholic beverages qualifies as an excise. The individual mandate does not tax any kind of activity, use of property or economic transaction….

If the mandate is not a tariff, impost, income tax, or excise tax, it is either a direct tax or no tax at all. And if it is a direct tax, it would be an unconstitutional one, because it is not apportioned among the states in proportion to population as the Constitution requires.

The Supreme Court may well end up endorsing the individual mandate, though the anti-mandate plaintiffs also have a real chance to win. If the pro-mandate side does prevail, it probably won’t be on the tax argument.