In a major victory for opponents to President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta has ruled that the individual mandate provision is unconstitutional. The decision affirmed part of a January ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida.
As expressed in prior columns, I share the concerns over federalism raised by the individual mandate. Before the law was passed, I warned that this provision was the most vulnerable and that the risk of such challenges could have been avoided by better drafting of the law. However, the Democratic leadership decided to push the law through on a thin margin without changes.
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.
The panel gives a thoughtful and comprehensive treatment of these cases and opposing cases such as Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111, 128 (1942).
The panel held:
In sum, the individual mandate is breathtaking in its expansive scope. It regulates those who have not entered the health care market at all. It regulates those who have entered the health care market, but have not entered the insurance market (and have no intention of doing so). It is overinclusive in when it regulates: it conflates those who presently consume health care with those who will not consume health care for many years into the future. The government’s position amounts to an argument that the mere fact of an individual’s existence substantially affects interstate commerce, and therefore Congress may regulate them at every point of their life. This theory affords no limiting principles which to confine Congress’s enumerated power.
The three judge panel ruled that “This economic mandate represents a wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority: the ability to compel Americans to purchase an expensive health insurance product they have elected not to buy, and to make them re-purchase that insurance product every month for their entire lives.”
One judge, Stanley Marcus, dissented.
The attention will now turn to the Fourth Circuit where parties are awaiting a ruling on a challenge to the individual mandate.
Here is the 11th Circuit opinion.