Vindicating ObamaCare: A Constitutional Question Answered

This is intended to be part one of a two part entry dealing with the Supreme Court of the United States‘ decision regarding the health-care overhaul commonly called ObamaCare. In this, the first, I will examine the way in which the Chief Justice of the United States argued and upheld the individual mandate at the heart of the debate over this law. Let me begin by stating this: I am not an advocate for Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and for political reasons I believe it should be repealed. However, my affection for Judicial Supremacy is unwavering even in this instance. I disagree for political reasons with the decision, but not for constitutional reasons. Chief Justice Marshall described our country as one “emphatically termed a government of laws and not of men.”(Marbury v. Madison) And described the role of the Supreme Court as:

It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret the rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Court must decide on the operation of each.(Marbury v. Madison)


And in order to carry out this power the Court stated in 1895, “every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” (Hooper v. California) Therefore, if there is a means of interpreting a law that does not make it unconstitutional, then the law itself cannot be held as such. Therefore, while I cannot agree with the Opinion of the Court on political grounds as a defender and supporter of the United States Constitution I must agree with the Court that this law does not contain any construction that would render it unconstitutional. I will attempt to explain the Opinion of the Court in as simple terms as possible while explaining why their decision was in fact the correct decision.

There are three questions that the Supreme Court was asked to considered in the case NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESS v. SEBELIUS (hereafter simply called National Federation and cited as 567 U. S. ____ (2012)) The first is whether or not the States, Individuals and the National Federation of Independent Business had standing in light of the Anti-Injunction Act, which prohibits a court from hearing a case pertaining to a tax not yet collected. In other words, is Affordable Health Care Act a tax and if so does the Supreme Court have the authority to hear the case. The second question before the Court is whether the Congress of the United States had the authority to issue the Individual Mandate whether under the Commerce Clause, Necessary & Proper Clause or the Taxation Clause of the Constitution. Finally, the Court was asked to review the provision of the law that requires States to engage in the enhanced Medicaid program created by the new law or lose their preexisting benefits for the program. I will say nothing more about the first and third questions than this: The Anti-Injunction Act is not applicable because Congress did not define the penalty imposed on those without insurance as a tax and Congress cannot force the states to engage in the new Medicare/Medicaid program by threatening to rescind the money they receive for the previous versions of the programs.

That leaves us free to examine the Opinion of the Court on the question of whether Congress has the authority to institute the Individual Mandate based on either the Commerce Clause, the Necessary & Proper Clause or the Taxation Clause of the United States Constitution; we will take them as the Opinion does in this order. The Commerce Clause of the Constitution is Article 1 section 8 clause 3 and states, Congress has the authority “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes…” As the Court indicates the Congress can only regulate, not create commerce. If it was eligible to create commerce the remainder of section 8 would not be necessary (567 U. S. ____ (2012).) Therefore, Congress can only regulate existing international or interstate commerce. If the only question was whether or not Congress has, under the Commerce Clause, the authority to issue the individual mandate then it would emphatically be answered in the negative. The Court severely limits the authority of the Commerce Clause by asserting the power extends only to activity, not inactivity. Furthermore, the Commerce Clause only applies to activities not to individuals. In other words, if an individual is not engaged in a particular activity governed under the Commerce Clause they are not subject to the regulation under the Commerce Clause. (567 U. S. ____ (2012)) Uninsured Americans can choose to be uninsured and therefore are not participating in the activity of purchasing health insurance and the laws regulating the purchasing of health insurance cannot extend to those individuals who choose not to engage in the activity. Likewise the Court rejects Congress’ argument that the purchasing of health care insurance and the participating in receiving health care are necessarily the same thing. You can purchase health care insurance without actually receiving care for any variety of circumstances. (567 U. S. ____ (2012)) And as said previously, if the ruling of the Court was predicating entirely upon the argument that Congress can do this because of the Commerce Clause, it would be unconstitutional.

This leads us to the second argument, made in sync with the first as it is often made by the government but will be treated separately to indicate the importance of the Court has done. The Necessary & Proper Clause of the Constitution is generally seen, along with the Commerce Clause, as the omnibus authority granted to Congress to regulate just about anything and everything. In the past the Court has given expansive leniency to Congress for laws adopted under the authority of both clauses. The Necessary and Proper clause states, “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof” (Article 1 section 8 clause 18)  The Court has generally granted Congress the power to create non-enumerated powers in order to carry power those powers that are enumerated in the Constitution. Likewise, Congress has been given the benefit of the doubt on whatever it considers “necessary” in carrying out its duties. However, the Court’s Opinion states that the Necessary and Proper clause cannot be used to support a power used by Congress that is not enumerated by the Constitution nor can it be used to expand the authority of an enumerated power behind its consistently held logical means.(567 U. S. ____ (2012)) In other words, since Congress does not have the authority to create commerce the argument that the individual mandate is supported by the Necessary & Proper clause would grant to Congress a new power that is not enumerated by the Constitution. Likewise, using the Necessary & Proper clause to prop up the Individual Mandate’s constitutionality under the Commerce Clause would extend the authority of the Commerce Clause beyond its intended purpose by allowing those not engaged in international or interstate commerce to be regulated by those laws regulating those forms of commerce. (567 U. S. ____ (2012))

However, while the Court rejected the government’s argument for the individual mandate based on these two powers it did uphold the mandate based upon the government’s secondary argument: Congress has the power under the Taxation Clause to force people to pay a penalty if they do not purchase health insurance. The Taxation Clause states, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States….” (Article 1 section 8 clause 1.) The Constitution restricts this power by stating, “No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken.” (Article 1 section 9 clause 4.) Using a very complex argument, the Chief Justice argues that the penalty paid by those who refuse to purchase health insurance acts very much like a tax. This runs contrary to what is argued at the beginning of the Opinion when the Court rules that the penalty is not a tax. However, the Court explains that the penalty functions like a tax much like the penalty placed on the purchasing of tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets. They are designed to discourage a certain behavior by individuals as is directed towards only those who choose to engage in such behavior. The penalty is to be collected by the IRS but the IRS is forbidden from punishing those who fail to pay the penalty. And in fact like the other examples, the penalty for not having insurance is not a penalty at all because not buying insurance is not a criminal act.(567 U. S. ____ (2012)) I have heard some argue that this explanation creates a new definition of what a tax is, but it in fact doesn’t. If one does not make enough money to constitute filing a tax return, the IRS and the government have no way of knowing if the person has insurance let alone the authority to collect the penalty payment. This functions in the exact same way the person who doesn’t make enough money to file a return is not penalized for not filing the return. However, the biggest argument against the rationale is that Congress can not “tax” Americans for not doing something. But it already does do this. If you fail to contribute money to charity you cannot receive the tax deduction. If you don’t purchase a new home, you don’t get the tax credit associated with the new home. In each of these situations you are being penalized for choosing not to do something that has no criminal recourse than to tax you. While this penalty is different in the way it functions (if you don’t buy a new house you don’t pay any more in taxes but if you fail to purchase insurance you do have to pay more) from other tax penalties, deductions and credits it maintains a similar though process since the individual mandate creates a tax that you can be exempt from by having insurance. It is likewise similar to the “sin” taxes placed on alcohol and tobacco products where you are not forced to pay the tax if you don’t purchase the items.

When I first heard the decision this morning I was as upset as everyone else over the Court’s decision but more so over the Chief Justice’s betrayal. As the day wore on I began to realize that he may have had sound reasoning. After reading the Opinion of the Court I am certain that Constitutionally speaking this law does pass. Does this mean that the Affordable Care Act is a good law? No, it is emphatically a bad law but that does not make it unconstitutional. If a construction of the Constitution can be found to incorporate a law, then that law cannot be unconstitutional. The Court did not accept the government’s first justification that they had the power under the Commerce and Necessary & Proper clauses to adopt this law. But the Court did find rationale in the government’s argument that the individual mandate does fall within the purview of the Constitution’s Taxation Clause. While the first part of the mandate cannot be found to have a basis in the Constitution, the second part can and since they are a part of the same instrument it holds as Constitutional.




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