Archive | Necessary and Proper

Do the Court’s Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause Rulings in the Individual Mandate Case Matter?

As I pointed out yesterday, five justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, accepted all the plaintiffs’ major arguments against the individual mandate with respect to the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses. But how much does that conclusion actually matter? My tentative view is that it will have little immediate effect, but may well be significant in the future.

One possible reason to dismiss the importance of the Court’s treatment of these issues is that it might have been mere dictum. After all, the Court upheld the mandate based on the Tax Clause, so the other two issues were not essential to the outcome. However, as co-blogger Jonathan Adler points out, Chief Justice Roberts’ controlling opinion explicitly holds that this analysis was essential to the outcome:

[T]hese analyses form an essential predicate to his ultimate conclusion that the mandate could be upheld as a tax. As the entire Court accepts, the most natural reading of the minimum coverage provision is as an economic mandate adopted pursuant to the Commerce Clause. It is only after rejecting the possibility that the mandate could be justified in this manner that the Chief returns to the text to see if it is susceptible to an alternative construction. Thus, the only reason the Chief Justice even considers whether the mandate could be considered a tax, the statutory text notwithstanding, is because of his prior conclusion on the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses. Thus this decision provides five firm votes for meaningful limits on the most expansive of Congress’ powers.

One can still argue that the Commerce and Necessary and Proper analysis was dictum on the grounds that it was not seen as essential by the other four justices who voted to uphold the mandate. But to the extent that the Chief Justice’s […]

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My SCOTUSblog Discussion of the Individual Mandate Decision

SCOTUSblog has just posted a detailed analysis of today’s decision that I did for them. It’s much more thorough than anything I have been able to put up elsewhere. Here is an excerpt:

Today’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the individual health insurance mandate is an extremely frustrating result for those of us who argued that the mandate is unconstitutional. One might even call it taxing. The plaintiffs came about as close as one can to winning a major constitutional case without actually winning it. It is the legal equivalent of losing the World Series after leading in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game. It is not a happy day for supporters of limited government.

Yet the Court also offers us a measure of hope and vindication. A majority of the justices rejected claims that the mandate is authorized by the Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause. That has little immediate impact, but bodes well for the future. The numerous pundits who claimed that this case was a slam dunk for the federal government turned out to be spectacularly wrong. The struggle over the constitutional limits on federal power is far from over….

In his discussion of the Commerce Clause, Roberts ruled that the Constitution denies Congress the power to “bring countless decisions an individual could potentially make within the scope of federal regulation and … empower Congress to make those decisions for him.” Yet, having closed the front door of the Commerce Clause, the Chief Justice has now “empowered” Congress to make those same decisions for us through the tax power…

Today’s decision is unlikely to be the last word on the constitutional limits of federal power. As the close 5-4 division in the Court shows, the justices remain deeply divided on federalism issues….


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Larry Lessig on the Politics of the Supreme Court’s Federalism Jurisprudence

In this recent Atlantic article, Professor Larry Lessig argues that, if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate, it could only be the result of politics, given its previous decisions rejecting “liberal” challenges to congressional legislation:

The Court has been asked to limit the scope of Congress’s authority in a wide range of cases. Some of these have been for liberal causes, some for conservative. I was lead counsel in a case that asked the Court to apply its newly announced will to enforce the limits on enumerated powers in the context of the copyright clause — viewed by many as a “liberal cause.” The Court said no, twice. The same with federal regulation of medical marijuana, which, the (said to be liberal) 9th Circuit had ruled, violated the limits on Congress’s power. The Supreme Court — including Scalia — said it didn’t.

So with these liberal cases, limits were not enforced. But when the cause is conservative, the willingness to limit Congress’ power comes alive. The Court has struck laws regulating guns — twice. It has struck a law that regulated violence against women. And if Obamacare falls, it will have struck down the most important social legislation advanced by the Democratic Party in a generation.

With that score sheet, I fear the cynics win.

I don’t doubt that the Supreme Court is often influenced by political factors, including in its federalism cases. But Lessig’s argument is greatly overstated. He ignores the fact that many of the votes upholding federal laws against “liberal” challenges in the medical marijuana and copyright cases actually came from the Court’s liberal justices. In Gonzales v. Raich, a decision I have been very critical of, four of the six votes in the majority came from the liberal justices. The five […]

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My Regblog Analysis of the Individual Mandate Oral Argument

I recently published an analysis of the individual mandate oral argument for the University of Pennsylvania Regblog site. It goes through all nine justices and assesses their probable views on the mandate based on both their oral argument performance and their previous records on federalism issues:

This week’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court shed some new light on how the justices are likely to vote on the constitutionality of the individual health insurance mandate contained in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Overall, the arguments went well for the anti-mandate plaintiffs. But the ultimate result is still difficult to predict. Four justices seem likely to vote to strike down the mandate, while four others are likely to vote to uphold it. As the Court’s key swing voter, Justice Anthony Kennedy could potentially go either way.

The conservative justices zeroed in on the biggest hole in the pro-mandate argument: the likelihood that the federal government’s various rationales for the health insurance mandate would also authorize virtually any other mandate. This extension of congressional authority would undermine the basic constitutional principle that federal power is limited. As Justice Antonin Scalia put it, the key question is this: “What is left? If the government can do this, what else can it not do?”

Readers might also be interested in this podcast co-blogger Orin Kerr and I did for the Federalist Society. As the podcast shows, Orin and I continue to disagree about the merits of the case, but there does seem to be a lot of common ground between us on the implications of the oral argument. […]

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Nearing the end of the search for the non-existent limiting principles

With the Supreme Court probably voting on the constitutionality of Obamacare (a term the President proudly embraces) on Friday, the health control law’s academic friends are diligently attempting to do what the entire United States Department of Justice could not do after two years of litigation: articulate plausible limiting principles for the individual mandate. Over at Balkinization, Neil Siegel offers Five Limiting Principles. They are:

1. The Necessary and Proper Clause. “Unlike other purchase mandates, including every hypothetical at oral argument on Tuesday, the minimum coverage provision prevents the unraveling of a market that Congress has clear authority to regulate.” This is no limitation at all. Under modern doctrine, Congress has the authority to regulate almost every market. If Congress enacts regulations that are extremely harmful to that market, such as imposing price controls (a/k/a “community rating”) or requiring sellers to sell products at far below cost to some customers (e.g., “guaranteed issue”) then the market will probably “unravel” (that is, the companies will lose so much money that they go out of business). So to prevent the companies from being destroyed, Congress forces other consumers to buy products from those companies at vastly excessive prices (e.g., $5,000 for an individual policy for a health 35-year-old whose actuarial expenditures for health care of all sorts during a year is $845).

So Siegel’s argument is really an anti-limiting principle: if Congress imposes ruinous price controls on  a market, to help favored consumers, then Congress can try to save the market’s producers by mandating that disfavored consumers buy overpriced products from those producers.

2. The Commerce Clause. “The minimum coverage provision addresses economic problems, not merely social problems that do not involve markets.” This is true, and is, as Siegel points out, a distinction from Lopez (carrying guns) and Morrison (gender-related […]

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Thoughts on the Individual Mandate Oral Argument

Today’s oral argument was a good day for the anti-mandate plaintiffs and a troubling one for the law’s defenders. I have long argued that the weakest point in the federal government’s case is the failure to provide a coherent explanation of why the rationale for the health insurance mandate doesn’t also justify virtually any other mandate Congress might impose (e.g. here and here). All of the conservative justices raised this exact issue during the course of today’s oral argument, with the exception of the usually silent Clarence Thomas, whom few doubt will vote to strike down. And none of them seemed satisfied with Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s answers. This does not bode well for the mandate.

I was also very happy to see this exchange between Verrilli and Justice Scalia regarding the Necessary and Proper Clause:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Wait. That’s — it’s both “Necessary and Proper.” What you just said addresses what’s necessary. Yes, has to be reasonably adapted. Necessary does not mean essential, just reasonably adapted. But in addition to being necessary, it has to be proper. And we’ve held in two cases that something that was reasonably adapted was not proper, because it violated the sovereignty of the States, which was implicit in the constitutional structure.

The argument here is that this also is — may be necessary, but it’s not proper, because it violates an equally evident principle in the Constitution, which is that the Federal Government is not supposed to be a a government that has all powers; that it’s supposed to be a government of limited powers. And that’s what all
this questioning has been about. What — what is left? If the government can do this, what — what else can it
not do?

GENERAL VERRILLI: This does not violate the norm of


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My CNN Column on the Individual Mandate Case

The CNN website has just posted a column I wrote on the individual mandate case. Here’s an excerpt:

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court considers the case challenging the Obama administration health care plan’s requirement that most Americans purchase a government-approved health insurance plan by 2014. The court should rule that this individual mandate is unconstitutional. To do otherwise would give Congress almost unlimited power….

If Congress could use [the commerce] clause to regulate mere failure to buy a product on the grounds that such inaction has an economic effect, there would be no structural limits to its power. Any decision to do anything is necessarily a decision not to do something else that might have an economic effect. If I spend an hour sleeping, I thereby choose not to spend it working or shopping. As the lower court decision in this case explained, the government’s position “amounts to an argument that the mere fact of an individual’s existence substantially affects interstate commerce, and therefore Congress may regulate them at every point of their life.”


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A Possible Shift of Emphasis in the Federal Government’s Defense of the Individual Mandate

The Hill has a story claiming that the federal government has changed its defense of the individual mandate to emphasize the Necessary and Proper Clause more:

The Obama administration has shifted its legal arguments as it prepares to defend the president’s healthcare law before the Supreme Court.

Written briefs in the landmark case increasingly have focused on a part of the Constitution that didn’t get much attention in lower courts….

The shift moves the focus of Justice’s argument from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to the Necessary and Proper Clause, which says Congress can make laws that are necessary for carrying out its other powers.

The federal government has in fact relied on the Necessary and Proper Clause throughout the litigation in the lower courts. So at most this is a shift of emphasis rather than substance. The actual logic of the argument is essentially the same as in the lower courts. And every lower court decision striking down the mandate has in fact considered and rejected the government’s Necessary and Proper Clause reasoning; the lower court decisions upholding the mandate largely ignored the issue because they concluded that the mandate could be justified under the Commerce Clause alone.

If the Obama Administration has decided to emphasize the Necessary and Proper Clause argument more, it is remarkable that their brief for the Supreme Court case almost completely ignores the biggest weakness in that argument: the possibility that the mandate is not “proper” even if it is “necessary.” Both Supreme Court precedent and the text and original meaning of the Constitution make clear that these are two separate requirements, both of which must be met. Yet the government’s approach to the case essentially transforms the Necessary and Proper Clause into the “Necessary Clause.” The amicus brief I wrote on behalf […]

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Briefs by VC Authors in the Individual Mandate Case

Regular VC readers might be interested in knowing just how many briefs in the individual mandate case have been authored by your humble Conspirators. In this post, I try to summarize all of them. Not surprisingly, they all urge the Court to strike down the mandate.

Pride of place goes to Randy Barnett’s coauthorship of the merits brief for the National Federation of Independent Business and other private plaintiffs in the case. Randy is in many ways the architect of the legal strategy against the mandate.

My own amicus brief on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation and a group of constitutional law scholars, argues that the mandate is not a “proper” exercise of Congress’ power under the Necessary and Proper Clause. I blogged about it in more detail here. Among our legal scholar amici are VC co-bloggers Jonathan Adler and Todd Zywicki.

David Kopel is the author of an excellent brief on behalf of the Independence Institute, Gary Lawson, Robert Natelson, and Guy Seidman, which focuses on a different aspect of the Necessary and Proper Clause. Lawson, Natelson, and Seidman are among the leading academic experts on the Clause.

John Elwood is the counsel of record on this amicus brief on behalf of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of some 2000 conservative and pro-free market state legislators. John’s brief focuses on the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and especially on the ways in which the mandate is inimical to the interests of the states.

Former VC-er Erik Jaffe is the counsel of record on this amicus brief for Docs4Patient Care, the Benjamin Rush Society, the Pacific Research Institute, the Galen Institute, and Angel Raich (of Gonzales v. Raich fame).

It’s possible that I have inadvertently missed some other VC-authored brief. If so, I’m sure […]

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Our Supreme Court Amicus Brief Explaining Why the Individual Mandate is not “Proper”

We have just filed an amicus brief in the individual mandate case that I wrote on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation and a group of prominent constitutional law scholars. The brief is available here. The legal scholar amici include Steve Calabresi, James Ely, Steve Presser, and Volokh Conspiracy bloggers Jonathan Adler and Todd Zywicki, among others. Several other prominent legal scholars were unable to join us because they are involved with other amicus briefs in the case.

Rather than considering the full range of constitutional issues in the case, we decided to focus on why the mandate falls outside the scope of Congress’ powers under the Necessary and Proper Clause because it is not “proper.” We thought that an in-depth analysis of this crucial, underemphasized issue would be more useful than a brief that covered multiple issues in a more superficial way and that would overlap far more with other briefs filed in the case. As far as I know, this is the only amicus brief that focuses solely on the issue of propriety.

The problem of propriety is the main flaw in the federal government’s claim that the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes the mandate – which is otherwise the strongest constitutional argument in favor of the mandate. It is striking that the Justice Department largely ignores the issue of propriety in their brief for the Petitioners. As explained more fully in our brief, the federal government’s position essentially transforms the Necessary and Proper Clause into just a “Necessary Clause.” This goes against logic, the text of the Constitution, the original meaning, and Supreme Court precedent. We hope to focus more attention on this weakness in the federal government’s case. […]

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Obamacare in Wonderland

That’s the title of a new article by Gary Lawson and me, forthcoming in a symposium issue of Boston University’s American Journal of Law & Medicine. The Journal has a large readership among medical professionals who are interested in legal issues relating to medicine. Accordingly, if you have been following the VC’s debate on the ACA over the past couple years, most of what is in the article will already be familiar to you. Here is the abstract:

The question whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”) is “unconstitutional” is thorny, not simply because it presents intriguing issues of interpretation but also because it starkly illustrates the ambiguity that often accompanies the word “unconstitutional.” The term can be, and often is, used to mean a wide range of things, from inconsistency with the Constitution’s text to inconsistency with a set of policy preferences. In this article, we briefly explore the range of meanings that attach to the term “unconstitutional,” as well as the problem of determining the “constitutionality” of a lengthy statute when only some portions of the statute are challenged. We then, using “unconstitutional” to mean” inconsistent with an original social understanding of the Constitution’s text (with a bit of a nod to judicial precedents),” show that the individual mandate in the PPACA is not authorized by the federal taxing power, the federal commerce power, or the Necessary and Proper Clause and is therefore unconstitutional.


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Will the Necessary & Proper clause save Obamacare? Not if the Court follows McCulloch v. Maryland

Gary Lawson and I explain why, in an article published last week by Yale Law Journal Online.

In short, the Necessary and Proper Clause expressed the well-known agency law doctrine of principals and incidents. That is, the grant of power to an agent (and the federal government was an agent of the people, to exercise certain delegated powers) was considered to include incidental powers. (Unless the parties specified to the contrary.) To be an incidental power, a power had to be subsidiary to, inferior to, and “less worthy” (in the language of the time) than the principal power. So if A delegates to B the power to manage A’s farm for five years, B could lease part of the farm to C for a few years, but B could not sell the farm. The power to sell the farm is not an “incident” of the power to manage a farm. It is a power that is as great as the power to manage the farm.

Thus, the first half of Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in McCulloch wrestles with the question of whether the power to establish a corporation (here, the 2d Bank of the United States) can be considered an “incident” of the enumerated congressional powers. This portion of the opinion is often expurgated from constitutional law textbooks. But not from Randy Barnett’s Constitutional Law: Cases in Context.

So is the power to order people to engage in commerce with certain corporations “incidental” to the enumerated power “to regulate Commerce . . .  among the several States”? Lawson and I argue that the power to compel intrastate commerce is of at least equal “dignity” as the power to regulate voluntary interstate commerce. Thus, the individual mandate cannot be justified a “necessary and proper” to the exercise of the […]

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My RegBlog Post on the 11th Circuit Individual Mandate Decision

My RegBlog post on the 11th Circuit’s recent decision striking down the individual mandate is now available here. The post considers the the ruling in more detail than my previous commentary on the subject.

RegBlog is a relatively new website established by the University of Pennsylvania Program on Regulation. For VC readers who may be interested, it has lots of good commentary by scholars and public officials on a variety of regulatory issues. […]

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My Newsday Op Ed on the 11th Circuit Individual Mandate Decision

Newsday has published an op ed I wrote on the 11th Circuit decision striking down the individual mandate. Because of very tight space constraints, I was unable to cover many of the nuances of the decision. But the op ed does summarize my main thoughts on it:

Last week’s Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking down the individual mandate in President Barack Obama’s health care plan is an important milestone. The court correctly recognized that there is no way to uphold the mandate without giving Congress unlimited power to mandate anything….

The ruling was co-authored by Judge Frank Hull, who became the first Democratic judge to vote to strike down the mandate. This undercuts already dubious claims that the lawsuits are frivolous; her opinion signals that the arguments against the mandate are strong enough to persuade at least one appellate judge likely to favor it on political grounds.

Since another federal appellate court, the Sixth Circuit, recently upheld the law, it’s extremely likely that the Supreme Court will decide to hear the case within the next year….

Defenders of the mandate claim this is a special case because everyone eventually uses health care at some point. But the argument relies on shifting the focus from health insurance to health care. The same bait-and-switch tactic can justify any other mandate.

For example, not everyone eats broccoli. But everyone does participate in the market for food. Therefore, a mandate requiring everyone to purchase and eat broccoli would be permissible under the federal government’s logic, as would any other purchase requirement. As the Eleventh Circuit puts it, “the government’s position amounts to an argument that the mere fact of an individual’s existence substantially affects interstate commerce, and therefore Congress may regulate them at every point of their life.” Whatever we do, we


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