This week, the Supreme Court will take up its historic three-day consideration of the health care law. My Supreme Court class will be spending two weeks on the four insular issues before the Court, including the question of federalism.
For a prior column on my view of the federalism question, click here.
As I have previously noted, it is not simply Justice Kennedy but Justice Scalia that will be the focus of attention in these oral arguments. In order to support the states, Scalia will have to distinguish past statements embracing broad interpretations of federal jurisdiction. For all intents and purposes, this could be an argument before a court of two with the parties striving to lock in both Scalia and Kennedy.
It is a closer case because of the refusal of Justice Kagan to recuse herself. I have previously said that I believe there are strong arguments to be made for such recusal by Kagan. If the Administration prevails, her participation will always be viewed in history as problematic by many.
I have stated before that I believe that the cases favor Congress in the lower courts, but that there is strong precedent on both sides. Obviously, both challenging the law are emphasizing United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 115 S. Ct. 1624, 131 L. Ed. 2d 626 (1995) and United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 120 S. Ct. 1740, 146 L. Ed. 2d 658 (2000). The Court stated in Morrison that it would not accept “the argument that Congress may regulate noneconomic, violent criminal conduct based solely on the conduct’s aggregate effect on interstate commerce.” Id. at 617. In Lopez, the Court required more than what Professor Fried appears to demand in the nexus to support federal authority. In striking down the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the Court found that the claim could not be sustained “under our cases upholding regulations of activities that arise out of or are connected with a commercial transaction, which viewed in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce.” Lopez, 514 U.S. at 561. Again, the question as stated by Chief Justice Marshall is whether this claim conforms with “the letter and spirit of the constitution.”
As I have stated, people of good faith can disagree on these points and the matter cannot be fully resolved until put before the Supreme Court. Most people anticipate that Justice Kennedy will be the swing vote on a close decision. In both Lopez and Morrison, Kennedy voted to strike down the laws. However, in his concurrence, Kennedy did note that the history and language of the Constitution “counsels great restraint before the Court determines that the Clause is insufficient to support an exercise of the national power.” Moreover, Kennedy did vote to uphold the Controlled Substances Act in Gonzalez v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005). He agreed that, absent the authority, Congress could not regulate drugs. I am frankly not convinced that the same nexus can be established here.
There is also some question over Justice Scalia’s view since he also concurred in Raich. In that decision, Scalia noted that “[u]nlike the power to regulate activities that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, the power to enact laws enabling effective regulation of interstate commerce can only be exercised in conjunction with congressional regulation of an interstate market, and it extends only to those measures necessary to make the interstate regulation effective. . . . Congress may regulate noneconomic intrastate activities only where the failure to do so “could … undercut” its regulation of interstate commerce.” However, he also found that “[t]his is not a power that threatens to obliterate the line between “what is truly national and what is truly local emphasis added.”
I view the health care legislation as presenting a new type of federal claim and one that could leave few things as protected by federalism by expanding Congress’ enumerated powers to an unprecedented scope.