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February 24, 2011

Congress, Commerce and the Health Care Law

Writing in Slate in early February, Dahlia Lithwick opined:
If the odds of success for the health care law [in the U.S. Supreme Court] have tilted in recent months, it’s not because the suits [challenging the law] have somehow gained more merit. It’s because the public mood and the tone of political discourse have shifted dramatically—emboldening some federal judges willing to support constitutional idea whose time, in their view, has finally come.
That constitutional idea is that there are judicially-enforceable limits on Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. Until the Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in United States v. Lopez, the federal courts had regarded the exercise of the commerce power deferentially—legislation would be upheld so long as Congress had a rational basis for concluding that intrastate activity would have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

In Lopez, the Supreme Court signaled that the commerce power had at least one judicially-enforceable limit: to be subject to regulation, intrastate activity must be inherently economic. Mere possession of a gun, the Court concluded in that case, is not inherently economic.

A decade later, however, in Gonzales v. Raich, the Court confirmed that Congress could regulate even non-economic intrastate activity, if that regulation was a part of a larger, comprehensive scheme to manage a national market—in Gonzales, the market in controlled substances. Gonzales suggested cases like Lopez might remain outliers.

Now, as Lithwick observes, popular criticism of the new health care law has found its champions. In two recent cases, United States District Courts in Virginia and Florida have declared the law unconstitutional because, they reason, it does not regulate economic activity, but rather inactivity—namely, an individual’s decision not to obtain health insurance.

These courts have thus erected a new barrier to Congressional regulation under the Commerce Clause: the distinction between activity and inactivity. Setting aside the lack of precedent supporting the existence of such a distinction, it is enough to say that this new rule does not exactly lend itself to consistent application over time. Is a decision not to purchase health insurance really inactivity, when the economic consequences of that decision are measurable and, in the aggregate, have a significant effect on interstate commerce?

The effort to make and justify such a distinction is a fool’s errand. It is not the responsibility of the federal courts to protect a political majority from itself. As Chief Justice John Marshall reasoned in Gibbons v. Ogden, the first great Commerce Clause case, Congressional discretion ultimately will be controlled by the people. And, as the great Chief Justice might have predicted, the most recent national elections and even more recent polls indicate that the forces opposed to the health care law appear to need no help from the judiciary.

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. Supreme Court will agree with Marshall’s view that, where commerce is concerned, deference to our elected officials is warranted. Many commentators are, as Lithwick notes, predicting a close decision. As in so many close cases, the meaning of our constitution likely will come down to the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy. At some point, the American people may seriously begin to wonder how it is that we arrived at this place, where one justice’s vote may deny the people’s representatives both the ability to make policy for the nation and the opportunity to change it in response to their constituents’ wishes.

Lawrence Friedman

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