I was driving down to Virginia Beach this morning for a court appearance, when I heard the news of the SCOTUS opinion. Like many, I was simply assuming that the 5-person conservative voting bloc (see Citizens United) would strike down the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.”
I was wrong. I have yet to read the opinion of Justice Roberts. Too busy handling my own cases. However, I did have to agree with one key assessment that he made — that the “individual mandate” was not justified by the Commerce Clause, but rather by Congress’ inherent power to tax.
Over the past 80 years, Congress has invoked its power to regulate “interstate commerce” in order to justify nearly every single legislative cause it holds near and dear (guns near schools, violence against women, unsafe drinking water). In some cases, these individual acts do impact interstate commerce. In others, they do not.
Regardless, the Commerce Clause must have some meaning. Otherwise, it should be amended out of the Constitution. (Which will never happen). To use it as a default mechanism in every case is an over-reach.
Separate and apart from that power, Congress has the right to tax its citizens. This tax can be applied to incomes or goods. It can also be applied to those people who have sufficient means, but refuse to purchase health care — thus pushing those costs onto others.
That is the power that Justice Roberts relied upon. In my opinion, he is correct.
Today’s ruling doesn’t resolve Obamacare or the inevitable debate on repeal. That will be decided in the 2012 election cycle. However, it does take away the uncertainty which has shadowed this law since Attorney General Cuccinelli sprinted to the U.S. District Courthouse in spring 2010 to begin the legal challenges.
Most importantly, today’s opinion registered a respect for the democratic process, a desire to find a legal basis for Congressional legislation. We are a democracy and these matters can (and should) be decided by our representatives. Judges should rarely find a law unconstitutional, especially when it’s passed by our highest legislature.
In a sidenote, I also agree with the Court’s opinion which prohibits Congress from penalizing states that refuse to expand Medicaid eligibility. Medicaid is a state-funded program with a Federal match. If a state chooses not to use all those funds, then that is a choice belonging to the state legislature — not the U.S. Congress.
Anyway, there is a lot to dissect here. In summary, I think Roberts did a very good job finding a balance.