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June 29, 2012

Health Care and the Commerce Clause

A friend asked me, in all sincerity, how I plan to teach National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius—the Health Care Cases—in my constitutional law class next spring. It’s a good question. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion discusses and alters commerce and spending clause doctrine and elaborates on the taxing power—the case could be its own course in Congressional authority under Article I of the Constitution. (My friend also said she’s still trying to figure out whether Roberts actually called balls and strikes in Sebelius or “if he took the ball away from the pitcher and told everyone to go home because the game was over”).

What may pose the greater challenge is how to incorporate into discussion of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate some sense of the decision’s political dimensions. Democrats have praised the decision and commentators have expressed respect for the Chief Justice’s decision to side with the so-called liberal justices. But at a certain level his decision appears motivated less by fidelity to constitutional principles than a desire to protect the integrity of an institution—the U.S. Supreme Court—that has surprisingly often in the past decade paid slight deference to the work of the elected and politically accountable branches of the federal government.

Indeed, as my colleague Louis Schulze has noted, in this case there were five votes for the proposition that an individual decision to freeload when it comes to health care, which has a demonstrable—and profound—impact on interstate commerce, is somehow not activity within Congress’s reach. This conclusion, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes in her opinion in Sebelius, is hardly self-evident in light of the Court’s commerce clause precedents, and it arguably fails to respect the legislature’s competence to make judgments about the aggregate effect of economic decision-making. Given that, as one appeals court judge noted, “it is possible to restate most actions as corresponding inactions with the same effect,” the Court’s new activity-inactivity distinction may simply be an invitation to judges to engage in subjective assessments about the validity of a wide range of federal regulations.

As discussion begins about the long-term implications of this new commerce clause principle, it would be good to remember that experiments with formalistic constitutional doctrines that effectively cabin the federal government’s ability to regulate have been relatively short-lived. For instance, in the 1995 case United States v. Lopez, the Court held that Congress can only regulate activity that is inherently economic under the commerce clause—and then ten years later concluded in Gonzales v. Raich that Congress may regulate even non-economic activity when it is part of a broad effort to regulate a national market, effectively embracing a means by which Congress can get around Lopez. The Court may soon discover that in order for the federal government to address some of the truly national problems the country now faces, it will have to develop a way for Congress to get around its new activity-inactivity distinction, too.

Lawrence Friedman

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