The DC Circuit Decision Upholding the Individual Mandate

I was going to write a more detailed post on the recent DC Circuit decision upholding the individual mandate. However, co-blogger Randy Barnett has already said much of what I would have wanted to say.

Like Randy, I am skeptical that Justices Kennedy or Scalia will be willing to endorse the D.C. Circuit’s conclusion that there are no limits to Congress’ power to impose mandates under the Commerce Clause. Both of these justices have emphasized the need to enforce limits on the scope of federal power. If the Court does uphold the individual mandate, it will be on the basis of one or more of the various arguments claiming that health care is a special case.

Here are two additional points that go a little beyond Randy’s analysis.

First, Judge Silberman’s majority opinion is wrong to suggest that a long line of Supreme Court decisions that defined the scope of Congress’ Commerce Clause power in terms of “activity” or “economic” activity “were merely identifying the relevant conduct in a descriptive way, because the facts of those cases did not raise the question” of whether economic activity could be regulated. Several of those decisions clearly use the term “activity” as part of a doctrinal test, not merely a description of facts. In Gonzales v. Raich, the Court noted that the statutes invalidated in Lopez and Morrison were ruled unconstitutional because they “did not regulate any economic activity,” whereas the law in Raich was sustained because it did regulate “quintessentially economic” activity. That certainly looks like more than just “description” to me. Even more importantly, in several cases the Supreme Court could have saved itself a lot of analytical trouble if it could uphold Commerce Clause statutes simply by claiming that they regulate inactivity with economic effects. For example, In Katzenbach v. McClung, the Court ruled that Congress could forbid racial discrimination by a restaurant that served almost exclusively local customers on the somewhat circuitous basis that the restaurant purchased some of its food supplies out of state, and its discrimination against African-Americans affected the volume of those purchases. If inactivity that affects interstate commerce were enough, the Court could have avoided these gymnastics and simply said that McClung’s restaurant had had an impact on interstate commerce because he could instead have established some other business that was more connected to interstate commerce than the restaurant itself was.

Second, it is interesting that Judge Harry Edwards, in his concurring opinion, seems uncomfortable with Judge Silberman’s conclusion that Congress has virtually unlimited power to impose mandates. He emphasizes that “Congress’s authority to legislate under the Commerce Clause is not without limits. If nothing else, there are boundaries that emanate from the Necessary and Proper Clause… which serve as principled limitations on Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause.”

Edwards is right to stress the need for limits on the Commerce power. But it is somewhat strange to look to the Necessary and Proper Clause for them. After all, the whole point of the Necessary and Proper Clause is to give Congress additional power that goes beyond what it has under its other enumerated powers by themselves. Edwards claims that his view is supported by Justice Scalia’s concurring opinion in Raich. But Scalia’s key argument in that case was precisely that the Necessary and Proper Clause could be used to reach activity that Congress could not regulate under “the Commerce Clause alone.” Unlike the majority opinion, Scalia did not believe that the Commerce Clause by itself gave Congress the power to forbid the possession of medical marijuana that had never crossed state lines or been sold in any market.

UPDATE: In criticizing Judge Silberman’s interpretation of the precedents on “economic activity,” I don’t mean to suggest that those cases definitively ruled that Congress cannot use the Commerce power to regulate inactivity. They did not do that. At the same time, “activity” did define the limit of what the Court ruled that Congress could regulate in those cases. Permitting regulation of inactivity would require a lower court to go farther than the Supreme Court has gone.

UPDATE #2: I have revised this post to correct a few grammatical and phrasing errors.