Justices Skeptical of Claims that the Individual Mandate is a Tax

Today’s Supreme Court oral argument transcript suggests that many of the justices, including at least three of the liberals, are skeptical of claims that the individual mandate is a tax. This is important not only for today’s argument about the applicability of the Anti-Injunction Act (which probably does not apply if the mandate penalty is not a tax), but to tomorrow’s argument about the constitutionality of the mandate. The federal government has argued that the mandate is constitutional because it is an exercise of Congress’ power under the Tax Clause. Lower courts have almost uniformly rejected this constitutional tax argument, and today’s questioning suggests that the Supreme Court is unlikely to accept it either.

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the mandate is not a tax because “Congress has nowhere used the word “‘tax.'” Justice Ginsburg noted that the mandate may not be a tax because it isn’t a “revenue-raising measure,” and because the monetary penalty is separable from the mandate itself. Justice Sotomayor also expressed doubts about whether the mandate is a tax, as did several for the conservative justices. As far as I can tell, none of the justices seemed to support the argument that the mandate is a tax.

Thus, today’s events do not bode well for the federal government’s constitutional tax argument. However, there are two caveats to this conjecture. First, the justices sometimes ask questions for rhetorical effect or play devil’s advocate. I don’t think they are doing so here, but obviously I can’t be sure. Second, it is theoretically possible that the constitutional definition of what qualifies as a “tax” is broader than the AIA definition. This is not the usual view of the matter. Indeed, the one lower court that ruled that the AIA applies to this case did so precisely because they thought that the AIA’s definition of “tax” is broader than the Constitution’s. However, it’s not completely impossible that the Court will reach the exact opposite conclusion, and the Solicitor General actually argued for such an approach today. However, there is no indication that the justices are leaning in that direction, or that any of them believe that the constitutional definition of a tax is broader than the AIA definition.

Even if the federal government loses on the tax argument, they could still win on the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause. The latter is probably their strongest point. Still, it’s interesting that the tax argument – which has attained great popularity among academic supporters of the mandate – has been overwhelmingly repudiated by the courts, including several judges who voted to uphold the law on other grounds. And it looks like the Supreme Court may well go the same as the lower courts on this issue.