As has been widely reported, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 28, 2012, decided, 5-4, that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was constitutional under Congress’ constitutional power in Article I, Section 8(1) to “lay and collect taxes.” The Court’s Chief Justice and four of the Court’s Associate Justices also said in separate opinions that this statute was not constitutional under Congress’ constitutional power in Article I, Section 8(3) to “regulate commerce . . . among the several States.” The other four Associate Justices came to the opposite conclusion that the statute was constitutional under this provision.
This post will review what was said about the interstate commerce clause in the four opinions in the case and then analyze the status of that constitutional provision after this decision.
The Supreme Court’s Opinions on the Interstate Commerce Power
Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion said that the Affordable Care Act was not constitutional under the interstate commerce clause. The same conclusion was reached in the joint dissenting opinion of Associate Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito, and Associate Justice Thomas added a separate dissent to express an additional reason why he thinks the statute was invalid under this clause.
The opposite result was reached in the opinion by Associate Justice Ginsburg that was joined by Associate Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.
All of these opinions are available online.
1. Chief Justice Roberts’ Opinion.
First, Roberts gave a fair summary of the existing law on the Constitution’s interstate commerce provision. He said, “Our precedents read that to mean that Congress may regulate ‘the channels of interstate commerce,’ ‘persons or things in interstate commerce,’ and ‘those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.’ The power over activities that substantially affect interstate commerce can be expansive. That power has been held to authorize federal regulation of such seemingly local matters as a farmer’s decision to grow wheat for himself and his livestock, and a loan shark’s extortionate collections from a neighborhood butcher shop.” For this summary, Roberts cited Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U. S. 111 (1942),which previously had been criticized by Justice Scalia, and Perez v. United States, 402 U. S. 146 (1971). (Roberts Slip Op. at 4-5.)
Roberts emphasized this concession when he said, “[I]t is now well established [by the Supreme Court’s prior cases] that Congress has broad authority under the Clause. We have recognized, for example, that ‘[t]he power of Congress over interstate commerce is not confined to the regulation of commerce among the states,’ but extends to activities that ‘have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.'” Moreover, he said, “Congress’s power . . . is not limited to regulation of an activity that by itself substantially affects interstate commerce, but also extends to activities that do so only when aggregated with similar activities of others.” (Id. at 17-18.)For this last point he again cited the Wickard case. (Id.)
Nevertheless, Roberts continued, “As expansive as our cases construing the scope of the commerce power have been, they all have one thing in common: They uniformly describe the power as reaching ‘activity.'” (Id. at 19.) The Affordable Care Act, however, according to Roberts, would require people to do something, i.e., to buy health insurance. Such a requirement, said Roberts, distinguished all of the prior Supreme Court precedents and, therefore, invalidated the statute. (Id. at 18-24.)
2. Associate Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito’s Dissenting Opinion.
Although the joint dissenting opinion did not specifically endorse Roberts’ interpretation and conclusion, it implicitly did so. It did not attempt to overrule any of the Supreme Court’s precedents on the interstate commerce clause. Instead, it said the Wikard case, which Scalia previously had criticized, “held that the economic activity of growing wheat, even for one’s own consumption, affected commerce sufficiently that it could be regulated” and “always has been regarded as the ne plus ultra of expansive Commerce Clause jurisprudence. ” (Joint Dissent Slip. Op. at 2-3.) But Wickard and other precedents, according to the dissenters, “involved commercial activity.” The ACA, on the other hand, attempted to regulate economic inactivity, i.e., the failure to buy health insurance, and, therefore, was unconstitutional under the interstate commerce clause. (Id. at 2-12.)
Justice Thomas was a co-author of this joint dissent and, therefore, agreed with all of its contents. His separate dissenting opinion was issued to reiterate his previously expressed view that the Court’s “‘substantial effects’ test under the Commerce Clause is inconsistent with the original understanding of Congress’ powers and with this Court’s early Commerce Clause cases.” (Thomas Slip Op.)
3. Associate Justice Ginsburg’s Opinion.
Justice Ginsburg started with her summary of the Supreme Court’s precedents on the interstate commerce clause. She said, “Consistent with the Framers’ intent, we [Supreme Court Justices] have repeatedly emphasized that Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause is dependent upon ‘practical’ considerations, including ‘actual experience.'” The Court has recognized that Congress has the “power to regulate economic activities ‘that substantially affect interstate commerce'” and regulate “local activities that, viewed in the aggregate, have a substantial impact on interstate commerce.” (Ginsburg Slip Op. at 14-15.)
She added from the Court’s precedents regarding the impact of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment’s “due process” and implied equal protection clause that the Court repeatedly had said that it owed “a large measure of respect to Congress when it frames and enacts economic and social legislation” and that when “appraising such legislation, we ask only (1) whether Congress had a ‘rational basis’ for concluding that the regulated activity substantially affects interstate commerce, and (2) whether there is a ‘reasonable connection between the regulatory means selected and the asserted ends.'” In addition, Ginsburg stated, “In answering these questions, we presume the statute under review is constitutional and may strike it down only on a ‘plain showing’ that Congress acted irrationally.” (Id. at 15-16.)
Ginsburg then criticized Roberts’ supposed distinction between the Court’s precedents in this area and the Affordable Care Act. That distinction, she said, had no support in those precedents, and his minor premise–the Affordable Care Act required some people to buy a product (health care) they did not want– was erroneous. (Id. at 18-31.)
The Interstate Commerce Power After the Supreme Court’s Decision
Before the Supreme Court issued its decision in this case, I was concerned that the shrill cries of columnist George Will and two judges on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that called for the Supreme Court to overrule 75 years of Supreme Court precedents on the scope of the interstate commerce clause would resonate with the five so-called conservative Justices of the Supreme Court. My worries were exacerbated by the initial reports that those five Justices had concluded that the Affordable Care Act did not satisfy their view of what that clause allowed.
When I had read the Court’s opinions, however, I discovered that eight of the nine Justice had not overruled any of those Supreme Court precedents and indeed essentially had endorsed them. Only Justice Thomas called for overruling one subset of those precedents, i.e., those allowing Congress to adopt laws under the interstate commerce clause if there were substantial effects on that commerce from local activities.
Therefore, all of those cases are still good law on the expansive nature of the federal power over such commerce. As an advocate for strong federal powers for the U.S. in the 21st century, I am pleased with this result.
As noted above, five of the current nine Justices believe that all the other Supreme Court precedents over at least the last 75 years can legitimately be distinguished from this case over the validity of the Affordable Care Act on the ground that all of the precedents involved regulation of economic activity whereas this current case involved attempted regulation of economic inactivity. Is this a legitimate distinction?
Justice Ginsburg and three of her colleagues did not think so as previously discussed. I leave it to constitutional scholars to analyze the validity of this purported distinction.
There is also a serious question as to whether Roberts’ opinion on the interstate commerce clause (when coupled with the similar discussion in the joint dissent) together constitute a binding decision of the Court under the doctrine of stare decisis.
- First, there is no official “Opinion of the Court” on the interstate commerce issue that could be considered as the basis for stare decisis. Roberts’ opinion on this issue is his alone. The similar opinion of the other four Justices (Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito) is a dissenting opinion that does not express concurrence in Roberts’ opinion on the issue.
- This careful reading of the opinions, however, may be overcome by section III-C of the Roberts’ opinion on the taxing power issue that states, “The Court today holds that our Constitution protects us from federal regulation under the Commerce Clause so long as we abstain from regulated activity.” This section of the Roberts’ opinion is concurred in by four other Justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan), but they disagreed with this interpretation of the commerce clause. (Roberts Slip Op. at 41-42; Ginsburg Slip Op. at 2-36.) And Justice Thomas in his own dissent said, “The joint dissent and Chief Justice Roberts correctly apply our precedents to conclude that the Individual Mandate is beyond the power granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause.” Perhaps these oddities are merely evidences of plain sloppiness in finishing the opinions in this case.
- Second and more important, the opinions of Roberts and the four dissenters on the interstate commerce issue might be regarded as dicta and, therefore, not binding on the Court in subsequent cases or on lower federal courts. Since the Affordable Care Act was held to be constitutional on a different ground (the power to tax), then all of the discussion about the interstate commerce clause was not necessary to the decision and, therefore, dicta.
- Justice Ginsburg was alluding to this principle in her opinion when she said that Roberts’ conclusion that the statute was constitutional under the taxing power should have meant there was “no reason to undertake a Commerce Clause analysis that is not outcome determinative.” (Ginsburg Slip. Op. at 37 n.2.)
- Roberts responded to this argument in his opinion: “It is only because the Commerce Clause does not authorize such a command [to buy health insurance] that it is necessary to reach the taxing power question. And it is only because we have a duty to construe a statute to save it, if fairly possible, that . . . [the relevant statutory provision] can be interpreted as a tax. Without deciding the Commerce Clause question, I would find no basis to adopt such a saving construction.” (Roberts Slip Op. at 44-45.)
- All of this discussion might be regarded as hyper-technical because so long as the Court’s composition remains the same, a majority (five Justices) is clearly on record on the limitation on the commerce clause power expressed in their opinions.
There is also disagreement on the significance of the new limitation on the interstate commerce power announced by Roberts and the four dissenters. Justice Ginsburg’s opinion says that Roberts ‘ opinion on the issue exhibits “scant sense and is stunningly retrogressive” and a “crabbed reading of the Commerce Clause [that] harks back to the era in which the Court routinely thwarted Congress’ efforts to regulate the national economy in the interest of those who labor to sustain it.” (Ginsburg Slip Op. at 2-3, 37.) This view was echoed by George Will and other commentators who said the reading of the commerce clause was an ultimate victory for libertarians and conservatives. However, one of those conservatives–John Yoo— said this reading of the clause “does not put any other federal law in jeopardy and is undermined by its ruling on the tax power” and in fact is “a constitutional road map for architects of the next great expansion of the welfare state.”
I am an agnostic on the question of the significance of the new limitation. I think Justice Ginsburg overstates the fear of horrible consequences because at least four of the Justices who articulated the new limitation also endorsed the 75 years of precedents expanding the scope of the interstate commerce power. Moreover, Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion in the Citizens United case articulated his concept of stare decisis that makes it unlikely that he would countenance such a large-scale overruling of precedents, in my opinion. A lot depends upon who wins the 2012 presidential election and who will be appointed to the Court over the next four years.
It is interesting and somewhat ironic that while the Supreme Court was struggling with legal arguments that would restrict the power of the U.S. federal government to respond to national economic problems, European countries were struggling with how to create a central power or authority to rescue the European economy and currency from imminent collapse.