Are The Attorneys General’s Constitutional Claims Bogus?
Immediately after passage of health care reform, over a dozen state A.G.s sued to declare it unconstitutional, as violating states’ rights. The Florida complaint is here, and Virginia’s here. Reminiscent of southern governors in the 1960s blocking their state universities’ gates, these legal officers in effect are saying “not on our sovereign soil.” Since the constitutional issues have already been hashed through so thoroughly, what’s new to talk about?
First, the Florida complaint, which a dozen other states joined (AL, CO, ID, LA, MI, NE, PA,SC, SD, TX, UT, WA), focuses mainly on the financial burdens of expanding Medicaid. This is challenged under the “commandeering” principle, as requiring states to devote sovereign resources to achieve federal aims. But, as we know, states are free to withdraw from Medicaid, so the argument seems to fall entirely flat. The complaint makes a bait-and-switch type of estoppel argument , that states got into Medicaid without any expectation of this expansion, and now it’s too damaging for them to withdraw. So, in effect, states argue that the Constitution allows them to keep the federal carrot but refuse the federal stick. Good luck selling that to an appellate court.
Second, these states complain about having to implement the insurance purchasing exchanges and their rules, but here again, states are entirely free to opt out and let their citizens use the federal exchange. The only reason states have to implement exchanges is that they insisted the legislation give them this option, rather than forcing everyone into a single national exchange. States can hardly complain about the responsibilities they asked for, especially when they’re still free to duck them.
Third, there are procedural problems. States probably have no standing to enforce arguments about violation of individual rights (which is the main concern regarding the individual mandate). Also, consider the remedy if states were to prevail: It would wreak havoc to overturn the mandate to purchase, but not the mandate for insurers to sell without any medical underwriting. Doing that would cause massive adverse selection and probably destroy some companies and some portions of the market, so a court would have little option but to strike down most or all of the entire law. Surely that measure is extreme enough to give even the most activist judge pause, and so will compel most courts to find every possible way to uphold constitutionality, regardless of political persuasion.
Finally, do state nullification statutes like Virginia’s make a difference? Not according to Harvard’s Charles Fried (who was Reagan’s Solicitor General):
The notion that a state can just choose to opt out is just preposterous…. As long as the federal law is independently constitutional, it doesn’t matter what Virginia says… It’s like Virginia saying we don’t have to pay income tax….One is left speechless by the absurdity of it.
This leaves only the well-worn arguments about exceeding powers to regulate commerce and to tax for the general welfare. On these, most legal scholars are loud and clear about the merits. In sum, as Sandy Levinson’s (Univ. Texas) says, “The argument about constitutionality is, if not frivolous, close to it.”
Originally posted at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health, Legal Issues in Health Reform.