No Healthcare Ruling—But Three Other Very Important Rulings—Today

The Court will announce its healthcare ruling on Thursday.  Tom Goldstein, founder of Scotusblog, said after this morning’s opinions were issued that, in light of the Court’s informal division-of-labor routine, and based on which justice wrote which of today’s majority opinions, it looks pretty clear that (as everyone has been predicting all along) Roberts will write the majority opinion in the healthcare case, possibly (Goldstein said) with assistance from Kennedy.  In other words, it’s likely that Roberts will write the part of the majority opinion that addresses the individual mandate and related penalty and that Kennedy may write the majority opinion on at least one of the other three issues in the case. 

Interestingly, at least to me, veteran LA Times Supreme Court correspondent David Savage has an article today in which he offers the possibility that—er—I’m right.  Here’s the relevant excerpt from Savage’s article:

The healthcare case has been fiercely debated as a test of whether Congress can require individuals to buy health insurance under its power to regulate commerce. Opponents have likened it to forcing Americans to buy healthy food, such as vegetables.

Lurking in the background is a way to decide the case on tax law grounds. No one can be prosecuted, punished or fined for violating the mandate. In fact, the word “mandate” does not appear in the law. In “practical operation,” the administration argued, it’s just a tax law.

If the mandate is really just a tax, that would be supported by the Constitution, which says Congress “shall have the power to lay and collect taxes … to provide for the common defense and general welfare.”

So, in the end, the justices could agree the law’s required tax payments are constitutional, while also making clear the government does not have broad power to mandate purchases.

Late last year, Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, an influential appointee of President George W. Bush and a friend of the chief justice, wrote an opinion arguing for treating the mandate as a tax law, not a regulation of commerce.

During oral arguments in March, the conservative justices sounded highly skeptical of giving the government the power to mandate purchases. But at one point, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayorasked whether it would be constitutional for Congress to assess a tax for health insurance and include an exemption for everyone who had insurance.

“The government might be able to do that,” said Paul D. Clement, the lawyer for the Republican states suing to overturn the healthcare law. If so, the liberals asked, why can’t Congress require people to have private insurance or pay a tax penalty?

Having the law upheld on tax grounds would be a big win for the president.

(In my June 15 post, I paraphrased Sotomayor’s question and erroneously attributed it to either Roberts or Kennedy.  I said I couldn’t remember which of the two had asked the question, which is no surprise since neither of them did.  Ah; I should have known.)

Now on to today’s big rulings.  The most significant—and it is huge—is a big surprise.  In a 5-3 opinion (Kagan did not participate) written by Kennedy and joined by Roberts in Arizona v. United States, the Court struck down on “federal preemption” grounds almost all of the major provisions in Arizona’s stop/demand-citizenship-papers/detain-upon-suspicion-of-being-an-illegal-alien all Hispanic-looking-or-sounding-folks law.  “Federal preemption” is a legal doctrine, based on the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, that bars states from enacting laws that conflict with a federal statute or that intrude into a policy area in which the Constitution grants the federal government sole control (e.g., national defense and foreign policy) or in which a federal statute indicates Congress’s intent to make federal statute the sole arbiter in that area of policy. 

On the only remaining major provision—which appears to allow the detention by state prison officials of anyone arrested on other grounds, in order to allow the officials to verify the person’s citizenship—the Court rule that it is too early to know whether or not federal law preempts that provision, because the state courts have not yet “interpreted” it.  The opinion makes clear, though, that if the state court interprets the provision to permit a detention or an extension of a detention in order to enable the citizenship check, this provision, too, likely would be preempted.  And the opinion says explicitly that even if the state court interprets the provision narrowly enough to survive preemption on the grounds argued in this case, the provision may be preempted on other grounds or it may violate another provision of the Constitution.  In a separate lawsuit, the law is being challenged on Fourteenth Amendment equal protection (racial profiling) and due process grounds.

UPDATE: Here’s an outstanding discussion of the Arizona-statute opinion at Scotusblog.

The other major ruling today in a fully briefed and argued case—two cases, actually; one from Alabama, the other from Arkansas—extended the Eight Amendment’s bar to cruel and unusual punishment to strike down as unconstitutional state statutes that mandate life imprisonment without possibility of parole when the statute is applied to minors.  This was a 5-4 opinion written by Kagan and joined by Kennedy.

In the final ruling of broad significance, the Fab Five summarily reversed (i.e., without full briefing and oral argument) the Montana Supreme Court in the case in which that court had upheld the constitutionality of a longstanding Montana campaign-finance statute despite Citizens United.  I had called this one wrong in postings on AB, saying that I thought the Court would agree to hear the case, but a week ago I realized that I probably was wrong.  The Court had initially scheduled its decision for last Monday on whether or not it would hear the case next term.  When it put off its announcement until today, I knew what that meant.

The dissent, written by Breyer and joined by the other Dem appointees, says that while they had the minimum number of votes (four) to force full briefing and oral argument, the four decided not to do so because they recognized that there was no chance that any of the other five would vote differently if the case were argued.  I think the four should have forced full argument next term, not because there was a chance that one of the five would switch sides—there was not—but because this case would have educated the public about a critical fact that most of the public probably does not know: that in Citizens United, the 5-4 majority didn’t hold that the First Amendment speech grounds are absolute—a ruling that would have required them to expressly overrule the Court’s longstanding election-law precedents—but instead based its ruling on a “finding” of utterly fabricated and baseless fact.  The 5-4 majority simply declared, based on nothing at all, that they “find” that unlimited campaign “expenditures” by outside individuals, groups and corporations does not “give rise” to corruption or to the appearance of corruption.

Had the Court been forced to have a full hearing on the Montana case, complete with oral argument, the public would have learned that in election-law cases, this 5-4 majority simply fabricates facts and casually varies the standard under which the Court can strike down a statute as unconstitutional, depending on what is required for the majority rule in a way that (significantly) helps Republican candidates.  In CitizensUnited, for example, the majority not only decided on its own to raise the issue of the constitutionality of the campaign-expenditure limitations in the McCain-Feingold law, a tactic that violates the Court’s own procedural norms and, in that instance, its own Article III “jurisdictional” precedents;* they also required that Congress have vast, specific evidence that unlimited expenditures cause corruption or the appearance of corruption, and then denied the government the opportunity to gather and present that evidence, instead simply coopting for themselves the writing of the “facts.”  Yet, in a case a few years ago that challenged the constitutionality of a state law that required a government-issued photo ID in order to prevent voter fraud, the 5-4 majority required no evidence whatsoever by the state that widespread voter fraud existed—and ignored the evidence that such voter fraud is almost nonexistent. 

In my opinion, it is this aggressive but quiet altering of procedural and standard-of-review law in cases that could affect election outcomes, in a manner that baldly favors Republican candidates either directly or indirectly, that makes this 5-4 majority so dangerous.  But for the moment, I’ll rejoice in the outcome of the two opinions in argued cases that I discussed above.
And on Thursday, we’ll learn whether Savage and I are right or whether instead almost everyone else is.

*The part of that sentence that reads “a tactic that violates the Court’s own procedural norms and, in that instance, its own Article III “jurisdictional” precedents” was added for clarity on 6/26.