Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The hint of the outcome during the first day of oral argument (on the impact of the Anti-Injunction Act on the Court’s jurisdiction to hear the ACA case)

I think there was a clue to Roberts’ thinking during the first day of argument—during the argument on the applicability of the Anti-Injunction Act, an obscure “jurisdictional” statute, which precludes courts from ruling on the constitutionality of a federal tax until after the statute becomes effective and the tax actually is due.  Roberts really indicated during that argument that he was interested in finding a way to rule that the penalty was a tax for purposes of Congress’s taxing power but not a tax for purposes of the Anti-Injunction Act.  That would remove the issue of whether the mandate was within Congress’s Commerce power, since if it is a tax, the mandate and penalty/tax are within Congress’s taxing power.  And then the only issue would be whether this violated the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause (liberty! broccoli!).

Late in the argument on the mandate issue the next day, under questioning by Sotomayor, the challengers’ lawyer, Paul Clement, conceded that under its taxing power, Congress could do pretty much the same thing as it did under what Congress thought its Commerce power allowed it to do.  That effectively killed the due process (liberty! broccoli!) argument, since for purposes of that argument, it made no difference which Congress’s powers authorized it to enact the mandate and the related penalty.  

The difference between Social Security/Medicare and Medicaid under the Spending Clause, in light of the ACA opinion

While the Court’s upholding the mandate is deservedly taking front stage in the media coverage, the Court’s decision to strike down a part of the Medicaid expansion may ultimately have broader jurisdprudential consequence.  That, at least, will be a subject of debate among lawyers and academics in the days and weeks to come.  This is the first time (as far as I know) that the Court has actually found a Spending Clause condition unconstitutionally coercive.  Whether it establishes principles that make many other programs vulnerable is a question that will require further analysis and debate.  Lyle Dennisten will start that analysis in an post later today or tomorrow morning.

— Kevin Russell, Medicaid holding may have broadimplications, SCOTUSblog

I one of the many updates to my initial post this morning, mentioned this exchange between Lyle Denniston and Tom Goldstein (SCOTUSblog’s publisher:

Lyle: The rejection of the Commerce Clause and Nec. and Proper Clause should be understood as a major blow to Congress’s authority to pass social welfare laws. Using the tax code — especially in the current political environment — to promote social welfare is going to be a very chancy proposition.

Tom: I dissent from Lyle’s view that the Commerce Clause ruling is a major blow to social welfare legislation. I think that piece of the decision will be read pretty narrowly.

 I wrote:

I’m almost always in agreement with Lyle’s analyses (as is, I’m sure, Tom Goldstein, who is the blog’s publisher and also a major Supreme Court litigator; Amy Howe, also a lawyer, is Goldstein’s wife).  But, like Goldstein, I disagree with Lyle on this one.  In order for the Court to interpret this opinion as limiting Congress’s authority to enact social welfare legislation, the Court would have to place in question a slew of current, longstanding social welfare programs.  I don’t think that was Roberts’ intent—really, I don’t—and I don’t think the opinion will be viewed that way.  Unless, of course, Romney wins and appoints a wingnut to replace, say, Ginsburg if her health does not hold out.  

Here’s what I think will happen: 

But first, I need to point out that Medicaid, unlike Social Security and Medicare, are programs structured as partnerships between the respective states and the federal government, each paying some portion of the cost, and that Medicaid has always contained a provision that makes state participation voluntary and that allows states to remove themselves from the program if they want to.  Social Security and Medicare, by contrast, are solely federally-funded and federally-run programs. 

The 26 states that challenged the ACA’s Medicaid provision argued that a provision in the Medicaid section of the ACA allows the federal government to withdraw all federal funds for a state’s entire Medicaid program—that is, the money it already is receiving—if a state opts out of the Medicaid-expansion part of the ACA.  The states argued that this was too coercive and therefore violates principles of state sovereignty.  Seven justices—the four dissenters, Roberts, Breyer and Kagan—agreed with that claim, and so they ruled that, while the federal government can put conditions on its funding of the new expansion, and can withdraw the money for that expansion if a state doesn’t comply with the conditions, the federal government can’twithdraw funding also for the earlier parts of Medicaid that the state already was receiving.
Sooo …. this ruling certainly (in my opinion) appears to have no effect whatsoever on any program funded entirely through, and administered by, the federal government.  And i tappears to have no effect on any social welfare program that is a partnership between states and the federal government as long as there is no threat by the federal government to withdraw funds already being given to the state for something else, in order to get the state to agree to participate in the new partnership, or in the new part of the part of the partnership.

I just don’t see how this restricts in any significant way Congress’s ability to enact social welfare programs.  I think that ruling is really very narrow.

As an aside, I want to mention the four dissents who wanted to strike down the entire ACA tried to at least persuade Roberts that the entire Medicaid-expansion part of the statute simply because that one provision in that part of the Act was ruled unconstitutional—even though, as Roberts points out, the Act includes what’s known as a “severability” provision providing that if any particular section of the Act is ruled unconstitutional, the section should be severed from the remainder of the statute, and the remainder should remain in force.  This let’s-see-if-we-can-get-the-tail-to-wag-the-dog-and-win-on-this-part-at-least tack of the minority was so transparently inappropriate that Roberts, in responding to it in his opinion, seems downright offended by it.  Good for him.  

From SCOTUSblog: The individual mandate survives as a tax. OH. MY. GOD!!!! — REPEATEDLY UPDATED (seven updates so far)

UPDATE: From SCOTUSblog: “The bottom line: the entire ACA is upheld, with the exception that the federal government’s power to terminate states’ Medicaid funds is narrowly read.”


SECOND UPDATE: The opinion is 5-4, with Roberts voting with the Dem appointees and writing the opinion, and Kennedy writing the main dissent.

Here’s more from SCOTUSblog:

The money quote from the section on the mandate: Our precedent demonstrates that Congress had the power to impose the exaction in Section 5000A under the taxing power, and that Section 5000A need not be read to do more than impose a tax. This is sufficient to sustain it.


The court reinforces that individuals can simply refuse to pay the tax and not comply with the mandate.


“Nothing in our opinion precludes Congress from offering funds under the ACA to expand the availability of health care, and requiring that states accepting such funds comply with the conditions on their use. What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding.” (p. 55)

And (added after second update was posted):

Another way to think about Medicaid: the Constitution requires that states have a choice about whether to participate in the expansion of eligibility; if they decide not to, they can continue to receive funds for the rest of the program.

The most talked-about part surely will be “individuals can simply refuse to pay the tax and not comply with the mandate” part.  Is it really a mandate at all if there’s no penalty for refusal to comply?  So maybe it’s not a total victory, after all.  But it’s still a big, big victory.  

(The Medicaid part of the ruling has no effect on the breadth or implementation of the law at all.)


Correction from SCOTUSblog (and HT to buffpilot in the comment to my post):

Apologies – you can’t refuse to pay the tax; typo. The only effect of not complying with the mandate is that you pay the tax.  

Looks like everything revolves on it being a tax.  

Ah-hah!! It IS a TOTAL, TOTAL victory.  !!!


Again from SCOTUSblog:

In Plain English: The Affordable Care Act, including its individual mandate that virtually all Americans buy health insurance, is constitutional. There were not five votes to uphold it on the ground that Congress could use its power to regulate commerce between the states to require everyone to buy health insurance. However, five Justices agreed that the penalty that someone must pay if he refuses to buy insurance is a kind of tax that Congress can impose using its taxing power. That is all that matters. Because the mandate survives, the Court did not need to decide what other parts of the statute were constitutional, except for a provision that required states to comply with new eligibility requirements for Medicaid or risk losing their funding. On that question, the Court held that the provision is constitutional as long as states would only lose new funds if they didn’t comply with the new requirements, rather than all of their funding.  

Yup. Total, total victory.  


From SCOTUSblog:

The Court holds that the mandate violates the Commerce Clause, but that doesn’t matter b/c there are five votes for the mandate to be constitutional under the taxing power.

Well, kudos, to … um … me.  I called it pretty nearly spot-on.  I began to sort of wonder in the last few days whether in fact I really was onto something, because my post from June 15 laying that out (again) kept getting more and more “hits” as the days went by.  Usually my posts stop getting “hits” a few days after I post them.  I actually began (almost) thinking it was possible that a few people from within the Court itself—i.e., law clerks to the justices—were clicking the post after possibly being told of it by someone who reads, maybe, Business Insider.  If so, that would seem to indicate that I actually had called it right.  But I dared not really think that Supreme Court law clerks were reading my post.

Btw, in a comment to a blog conversation on Slate on Monday, I wrote:

Hmm.  Well, having gone out on a limb 10 days ago on a blog I write for, posting an article that discusses as one of the more likely possible healthcare-case results the tax-law outcome that Savage suggests in his LA Times article today, I’m feeling ever-so-slightly less lonely out on that tree branch.  At least now I’ll have someone to cling to on Thursday as the limb falls to the ground. 

The blog conversation is ongoing there.  The current latest entry (from last night) is here, should any AB readers be interested. 

Salvaging the idea that Congress did have the power to try to expand health care to virtually all Americans, the Supreme Court on Monday upheld the constitutionality of the crucial – and most controversial — feature of the Affordable Care Act.   By a vote of 5-4, however, the Court did not sustain it as a command for Americans to buy insurance, but as a tax if they don’t.  That is the way Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., was willing to vote for it, and his view prevailed.  The other Justices split 4-4, with four wanting to uphold it as a mandate, and four opposed to it in any form.

Since President Obama signed the new law, it has been understood by almost everyone that the expansion of health care coverage to tens of millions of Americans without it could work — economically — only if the health insurance companies were guaranteed a large pool of customers.   The mandate to buy health insurance by 2014 was the method Congress chose to supply that pool.   It is not immediately clear whether the Court’s approach will produce as large a pool of new customers.   The ACA’s key provision now amounts to an invitation to buy insurance, rather than an order to do so, with a not-very-big tax penalty for going without.

Those are the first two paragraphs of Lyle’s (I love him, and can refer to him by his first name if I want to) three-paragraph initial article on the regular blog (as opposed to the live blog).  He’s sure to post updates to the article later today.

Earlier, on the live blog, Amy Howe wrote:

Take a quick look at Footnote 11, which is on page 44 of the slip opinion: Those subject to the individual mandate may lawfully forgo health insurance and pay higher taxes, or buy health insurance and pay lower taxes. The only thing that they may not lawfully do is not buy health insurance and not pay the resulting tax.

And for those of you who remember my writing about an obscure court-jurisdiction statute called the Anti-Injunction Act, which was a subject of controversy in the case, Lyle, writing earlier on the live blog, wrote:

Interesting, at least to scholars, that while the mandate and its attached penalty are a tax for purposes of its constitutionality, but not for the Anti-Injunction Act. If it were a tax for AIA purposes, this case would not have been decided re the mandate.

Also on the live blog, Lyle wrote:

The rejection of the Commerce Clause and Nec. and Proper Clause should be understood as a major blow to Congress’s authority to pass social welfare laws. Using the tax code — especially in the current political environment — to promote social welfare is going to be a very chancy proposition.

Tom Goldstein then wrote:

I dissent from Lyle’s view that the Commerce Clause ruling is a major blow to social welfare legislation. I think that piece of the decision will be read pretty narrowly.

I’m almost always in agreement with Lyle’s analyses (as is, I’m sure, Tom Goldstein, who is the blog’s publisher and also a major Supreme Court litigator; Amy Howe, also a lawyer, is Goldstein’s wife).  But, like Goldstein, I disagree with Lyle on this one.  In order for the Court to interpret this opinion as limiting Congress’s authority to enact social welfare legislation, the Court would have to place in question a slew of current, longstanding social welfare programs.  I don’t think that was Roberts’ intent—really, I don’t—and I don’t think the opinion will be viewed that way.  Unless, of course, Romney wins and appoints a wingnut to replace, say, Ginsburg if her health does not hold out.  


This one’s not from SCOTUSblog.  It’s from Ginsburg’s concurrence, joined by Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan:

At bottom, THE  CHIEF  JUSTICE’s and the joint dissenters’ “view that an individual cannot be subject to Commerce Clause regulation absent voluntary, affirmative acts that enter him or her into, or affect, the interstate market expresses a concern for individual liberty that [is] more redolent of Due Process Clause arguments.”  SevenSky, 661 F. 3d, at 19.  See also  Troxel v.  Granville, 530 U. S. 57, 65 (2000) (plurality opinion) (“The [Due Process] Clause also includes a substantive component that provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).  Plaintiffs have abandoned any argument pinned to substantive due process, however, see 648 F. 3d 1235, 1291, n. 93 (CA11 2011), and now concede that the provisions here at issue do not offend the Due Process Clause.8

Footnote 8 says:

8. Some adherents to the joint dissent have questioned the existence of substantive due process rights.  See McDonald v.  Chicago, 561 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (THOMAS, J., concurring) (slip op., at 7) (The notion that the Due Process Clause “could define the substance of th[e] righ[t to liberty] strains credulity.”); Albright v. Oliver, 510 U. S. 266, 275 (1994) (SCALIA, J., concurring) (“I reject the proposition that the Due Process Clause guarantees certain (unspecified) liberties[.]”).  Given these Justices’ reluctance to interpret the Due Process Clause as guaranteeing liberty interests, their willingness to plant such protections in the Commerce Clause is striking.

The SevenSky opinion, SevenSky v. Holder, that Ginsburg quotes from was written last November by Lawrence Silberman, a Reagan appointee to the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and one of the most respected (in conservative legal circles) federal appellate judges, in one of the ACA cases. As for Ginsburg’s footnote 8, she says something I’ve wondered about all along: Substantive due process is legal doctrine under which Roe v. Wadeand, before that, the opinion striking down  a Connecticut law that prohibited the sale and use of contraceptives, were based.  Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Kennedy opinion invalidating Texas’s sodomy statute also was based on that doctrine.  Thomas and Scalia routinely lambaste the doctrine, as do many other tea partier folks. 

So the question is: Do these people now concede the appropriateness of the legal doctrine underlying those cases they hate so much?

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.

As Goes Obamacare, So Goes Romneycare … and State Laws Requiring Auto Insurance?

I’ve written repeatedly now on AB that the challenge to the constitutionality of the ACA’s minimum-coverage provision (a.k.a., the individual-mandate provision) is not really a Commerce Clause challenge but instead a challenge under the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, under what is known as the “substantive due process” constitutional law doctrine.  The Fifth Amendment’s due process clause limits what the federal government can do vis-à-vis individuals.  A clause in the Fourteenth Amendment is nearly identical, and identical in substance, to the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, except that it limits what state governments can do vis-à-vis individuals.  

SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston’s early report suggests that I was right.  The outcome of the case, he predicts, will depend on whether Kennedy believes that the Court can uphold the mandate provision without opening the door to unlimited congressional mandating of purchase specific things, not because Congress lacks that power under the Commerce Clause but instead because it violates liberties protected under the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. Denniston does not mention the Fifth Amendment, but, whether or not the justices themselves did specifically, that is the upshot.

The “substantive due process” doctrine holds that there are certain incursions into personal autonomy and certain impositions on individual liberty beyond which the Constitution allows the government to go.  It is this doctrine by which the Court has stricken down such laws as state laws barring the sale and use of contraceptives, state laws prohibiting abortion under all circumstances (Roe v. Wade),  and state laws criminalizing sodomy.

But based on Denniston’s early report about the nature of Kennedy’s concerns, I don’t see how, absent an utterly artificial Commerce Clause-based ruling, a ruling that the mandate unconstitutionally infringes upon person choice, upon personal liberty, would not also mean that Massachusetts’s “Romneycare” law, and state laws that  require drivers to purchase auto insurance, would be constitutionally permissible. 

Kennedy likes to wax eloquent, as he did last year in an opinion in a case called Bond v. United States, about how divisions of power among various governments—by which he means state governments vs. the federal one—protect individuals from tyranny. (He’s usually less interested in constitutional checks than on balances to state power—especially to state-court power—but that’s another subject.)  In Bond, he said, rightly, in my opinion, that a person indicted under a federal criminal law has legal “standing” (the legal right) to argue that the federal statute unconstitutionally infringed upon an area of criminal law reserved solely for the states to address, because the federal statute impinged (literally, in that case) her personal freedom.  So if the problem with the insurance mandate is that it exceeds Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause, then a ruling that the ACA, a federal statute, is unconstitutional would not affect state statutes.
But that’s a separate issue from whether the mandate is an unconstitutional violation of personal liberty irrespective of whether or not the Commerce Clause power would allow Congress to enact the law.  And under the Court’s longtime Commerce Clause jurisprudence, Congress does have the authority to legislate the mandate to buy health insurance, given the impact on the healthcare market of the uninsureds’ usage of health care.  A ruling to the contrary would be transparently artificial. Which probably won’t matter to Kennedy.

This will be cross-posted later today to the Firedoglake blog.


To the general public, all that matters are the headlines, reflecting the bottom line.  The universal consensus among reporters who attended the 90-minute Supreme Court argument yesterday on whether an 1867 law called the Anti-Injunction Act bars the Court from considering challenges to the constitutionality of ACA’s individual-mandate provision was that the justices will decide the constitutionality of the mandate provision despite the AIA.  

But law geeks like me know that what also matters is how they conclude that the court has “jurisdiction”—legal authority—to decide the constitutionality of the mandate provision. That’s because federal judges are incessantly, and often spontaneously, throwing lawsuits out court, claiming that they lack jurisdiction to hear the case—a trend begun in the 1980s and accelerated exponentially, explicitly and by malignant (as opposed to benign) neglect to reverse lower appellate court rulings, by the conservative legal movement to which a majority of the Roberts and Rehnquist courts adhere. 

A key part of the conservative-movement’s federal-courts-have no-jurisdiction-to-hear-any-constitutional-claims-except-the-ones-that-conservatives-want-them-to-hear jurisprudence is that federal-court jurisdiction either exists or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t it can’t be waived by the parties.  So even if neither party claims a lack of federal jurisdiction, the judge, judges or justices in each case must raise the issue themselves if they believe jurisdiction may be lacking. Under the Constitution, Congress decides what types of cases the federal courts have jurisdiction to hear, by enacting “jurisdictional” statutes that either grant or remove federal-court jurisdiction in specific categories of cases, subject only to requirements or prohibitions in other parts of the Constitution.  (Actually, the Supreme Court has created several legal “doctrines” out of whole cloth that remove federal-court jurisdiction in various cases, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

The AIA  provides that “no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax may be maintained in any court by any person.”  The ACA’s individual-mandate provision does not become effective until 2014 and the penalty for failure to obtain the minimum insurance will not be assed until April 2015, through income tax filings.  Early on in the ACA litigation, the Obama administration claimed that the ACA penalty was a tax and that the AIA therefore removes federal-court jurisdiction to hear the challenge to its constitutionality until 2015, but it soon retracted that claim and now argues that the penalty is, well, just a penalty, not a tax, and that therefore the AIA doesn’t remove federal-court jurisdiction to decide the constitutionality of the mandate and penalty for non-compliance with the mandate until 2015; the Court can decide the issue now.  

Three of the four lower federal appellate court panels that have issued rulings in ACA litigation, including the one in the case that the Court is hearing this week that ruled the mandate unconstitutional, agreed. The Supreme Court, in deciding to hear the AIA claim anyway, appointed a private lawyer to argue that the AIA does apply here, because the Justice Department joined the ACA’s challengers in saying that it doesn’t.

Everyone, certainly including me, assumed that the outcome of this “jurisdictional” issue—of whether or not the AIA barred the Court’s consideration of the challenges until 2015—would depend upon whether the Court thinks the penalty is a penalty or instead a tax.  And that may prove accurate.  But, stunningly (in my opinion), the Court, at the urging of Roberts, might instead say that it doesn’t matter whether the penalty is actually a tax, because the government has waived the jurisdictional claim. “It’s a case quite similar to this in which the constitutionality of the Social Security Act was at issue, and the government waived its right to insist upon the application of this [Anti-Injunction] Act,” Roberts said, referring to Helvering v. Davis, the 1937 case in which the Court upheld the Social Security Act.  “So,” Roberts asked, “are you asking us to overrule the Davis case?” 

Hmmm.  I thought they already had done that.

SCOTUSblog’s incomparable Lyle Denniston provides invaluablereportage and analysis of the different options that emerged from yesterday’s argument on how the Court will remove the AIA as a bar to deciding the constitutionality of the mandate provision. 


This will be cross-posted later today to the Firedoglake blog.

My ACA-Individual-Mandate Analysis Summed Up In Three Paragraphs**

As AB readers know, I’ve written quite a number of in-depth posts on the ACA litigation—on the individual-mandate provision and on other issues as well.  (The number, by my count, is at least 11,** including the one I posted yesterday, titled “Showtime At The Supreme Court”).  And for your reading enjoyment, and in honor the big show that will be staged at the Court during the next three days, I’m posting the links to all 10** of the earlier posts I located, below. 

But in response to a comment by Coberly to “Showtime” post today, I summed up my analysis of the individual-mandate issue in three paragraphs.  Coberly wrote:

Why, is there nothing then you can’t do in the name of the commerce clause?

Or is it a mystery known only to those who “actually know the law,” as opposed to those of us who worry about little things like civil liberties as they are actually experienced by, say, human beings?

I responded:

There are limits to what Congress can do in the name of the Commerce Clause, but because medical treatment for uninsured patients, including those traveling from one state to another, requires cost-shifting of huge amounts of money, some of it interstate, a law like the ACA is within the Commerce Clause limits. 

That’s not to say that there may not be some other reason why a statute that falls within Congress’s Commerce Clause powers is unconstitutional, and although the people challenging the constitutionality of the mandate don’t expressly say this, their “freedom” and “liberty” claim is really a claim that the mandate violates the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause under a constitutional-law doctrine known as “substantive due process.” (That doctrine also is the legal doctrine under which the Supreme Court ruled that states can’t bar the sale and use of contraceptives, and is the doctrine underpinning Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas, the opinion that struck down state sodomy laws as unconstitutional.)  But the Commerce Clause plays no role in this, one way or another. 

Sure, if the Court strikes down as beyond Congress’s authority  under the Commerce Clause a statute that requires people to do something or that bars them from doing something, then people are “free” to do or not do whatever the statute required or barred.  But that’s just incidental.  It isn’t less of an imposition on liberty for Congress to require people who can afford to do so to buy health insurance directly through the government by a tax under Congress’s taxing power (which is what the government does with Medicare) than to require then to buy it elsewhere under Congress’s Commerce Clause power.

Here are the links to the nine earlier ACA-litigation-related posts I was about to find:

*Actually, as Linda Greenhouse pointed out in her NYT column on Thursday, which I discussed in my post yesterday, it isn’t 26 state attorneys general.  It’s 22 Republican state attorneys general and four Republican governors whose states have Democratic attorneys general.

**I added this one to the list after I posted this post earlier today.

Showtime At The Supreme Court

Dan emailed me several days ago asking whether I thought I should write a preshow (my word, not his) post about next week’s marathon Supreme Court oral arguments on the constitutionality of Obamacare, a.k.a., the Affordable Care Act.  Six hours of argument, two each day, Monday through Wednesday, in which the Court will hear argument, first, on whether the courts even have “jurisdiction” (the legal authority) to even consider the challenges to the Act’s constitutionality before the challenged provisions of the Act have gone into effect, and, then, on the challenges to separate parts of the Act by various challengers who will be directly affected by the respective provision. 

It promises to be a long three days.  And by the time Dan emailed me, I already was sick of reading previews.  I wrote back to Dan:

I don’t think there’s anything to say, really, at this point.  There’ve been a zillion articles/commentaries about it within the last week or so, but they don’t really say anything.  Mostly they just kind of speculate about how Roberts, Scalia and Kennedy might vote, based on things like what Scalia wrote in a concurring opinion in a Commerce Clause case a few years ago (Scalia expressed an “expansive” view of Congress’s Commerce Clause powers), and how Roberts wants to be remembered. It’s obligatory writing for people like Adam Liptak, the NYT Supreme Court correspondent, but pretty pointless, really.

But two articles published on Thursday, one by former (longtime) New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse, who in retirement writes a periodic commentary column in the Times, and Slate Supreme Court and general-legal-issues writer Dahlia Lithwick, are, I think, worth reading. 

Greenhouse’s is titled “Never Before,” and the thrust of her article is that those two words—“never before”—are the sum and the (non)legal substance of the challengers’ arguments.  “Unprecedented,” she notes, “is a description, not an analysis.”  Or a legal argument.  It is instead merely a political argument.  And transparently so, which is why she predicts that the Court will uphold the statute, by a comfortable margin. 

Well, actually, she predicts that the Court will uphold the statute by a comfortable margin because, well, for all the incessant hype, this is not, under extensive and pretty darn clear Supreme Court precedent relevant to each of the separate stated constitutional grounds argued, a close case at all—and because John Roberts cares a lot about how the Court is perceived during his tenure as its chief. 

Or, more accurately, at least in my opinion, because under Supreme Court precedent this is not a close case and  this is too high-profile a case for its outcome not to impact the public’s perception of the Court.  By which I mean, and I think she means, that while Roberts & Co. regularly make out like bandits in the night, hijacking the law and transforming it into reflection of a 1980s Federalist Society checklist, they do so only to the extent to which they expect that they can escape widespread public revulsion.  Which in turn is determined by the extent to which the news media actually focuses on these ideological-agenda rulings before the Court issues the ruling.  

That, after all, is how we got Citizens United v. FEC.  Roberts & Co. misjudged.  Oops.  Well, for heaven’s sake … I mean … y’know … who knew that the public would, um, actually get the Citizens United ruling?

Lithwick’s article makes much the same point as Greenhouse’s—that as a matter of law, this is not a close case—but with a slight twist.  After giving a nod of recognition to the Greenhouse , which was published in that morning’s paper, Lithwick says that while she expects that the Court will uphold the statute, she’s not all that sure.  As a legal matter, she says, this case is not the case of the century nor of the decade nor even of this term.  Unless, of course, a 5-4 majority surprises almost all the legal commentators who actually know the law and follow the Court.   

Which, she says, wouldn’t surprise her all that much, because the case is not really about the law at all, but instead about “optics, politics, and public opinion.”  But ultimately, she thinks, Roberts and one or two of the others just won’t think this case is worth the cost in public opinion. 

I agree.  It’s not as if they get to pick a president in this one.  There are, as Lithwick notes, other cases in their pipeline that could well do that. The oral arguments in those cases are, like the arguments next week, likely to be mere shows.  But with a more limited-release audience and opposite results.

DC Appellate Court upholds constitutionality of Obamacare

Talking Points Memo reminds us that there are still ongoing legal issues regarding our healthcare system:

A three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — comprised of two judges appointed by Republican presidents and one by a Democrat — upheld the constitutionality of a key section of President Obama’s health care law in a ruling released Tuesday.

Senior Judge Laurence Silberman and Judge Harry Edwards ruled to uphold the law — specifically the mandate that requires Americans to purchase health insurance — on the merits. Judge Brett Kavanaugh dissented from their ruling, but he, too, would have ruled against the plaintiffs seeking to overturn the mandate. His opinion argued that federal courts lack jurisdiction to enjoin the mandate, which functions similarly to a tax.

View Decision

Update: See Mark Thoma’s article on Why we need an individual mandate for health insurance.