From Justice Story: A Postal Power Parable on Mandating Health Insurance

By Mark Hall
In Health Reform
December 19, 2010
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mark-a-hall-150x1502This just in:  Stirred by the arguments of Randy Barnett, Ilya Somin, Judge Hudson and others, Justice Joseph Story — miraculously from the grave! — has filed an amicus brief in the 4th Circuit appeal on the constitutionality of mandating the purchase of health insurance.  Of note, he wrote his brief in the form of a parable about Congress’ power under the postal clause to build roads — an issue that was hotly contested 2 centuries ago.   Defenders of states’ rights argued that the power to “establish Post Offices and post Roads” conveyed only the power to designate which existing state roads to use for postal routes, and not the power to acquire land and build new federal roads.  From the faint echoes of this historical debate, Justice Story appears to suggest there are lessons to learn about the modern Commerce Clause (emphases added):

The grounds of the [more restrictive position] seem to be as follows. The power given under the confederation never practically received any other construction. Congress never undertook to make any roads, but merely designated those existing roads, on which the mail should pass. At the adoption of the constitution there is not the slightest evidence, that a different arrangement, as to the limits of the power, was contemplated. . . . when a road is declared by law to be a mail-road, the United States have a right of way over it; . . . It was thought necessary to insert an express provision in the constitution, enabling the government to exercise jurisdiction over ten miles square for a seat of government, and of such places, as should be ceded by the states for forts, arsenals, and other similar purposes. It is incredible, that such solicitude should have been expressed for such inconsiderable spots, and yet, that at the same time, the constitution intended to convey by implication the power to construct roads throughout the whole country, with the consequent right to use the timber and soil, and to exercise jurisdiction over them . . .  The terms of the constitution are perfectly satisfied by this limited construction, and the power of congress to make whatever roads they may please, in any state, would be a most serious inroad upon the rights and jurisdiction of the states. It never could have been contemplated. . . . The power to create the office does not necessarily include the power to carry the mail, or regulate the conveyance of letters, or employ carriers. The one may exist independently of the other. A state might without absurdity possess the right to carry the mail, while the United States might possess the right to designate the post-offices, . . .

Yet, no man ever imagined such a construction to be justifiable.  And why not? Plainly, because constitutions of government are not instruments to be scrutinized, and weighed, upon metaphysical or grammatical niceties. They do not turn upon ingenious subtleties; but are adapted to the business and exigencies of human society; and the powers given are understood in a large sense, in order to secure the public interests. Common sense becomes the guide, and prevents men from dealing with mere logical abstractions. . . .

Under the constitution congress has, without any questioning, given a liberal construction to the power to establish post-offices and post-roads. It has been truly said, that in a strict sense, “this power is executed by the single act of making the establishment. But from this has been inferred the power and duty of carrying the mail along the post-road from one post-office to another. And from this implied power has been again inferred the right to punish those, who steal letters from the post-office, or rob the mail. It may be said with some plausibility, that the right to carry the mail, and to punish those, who rob it, is not indispensably necessary to the establishment of a post-office and a post-road. This right is indeed essential to the beneficial exercise of the power; but not indispensably necessary to its existence.” . . .  If the practice of the government is, therefore, of any weight in giving a constitutional interpretation, it is in favour of the liberal interpretation of the clause.

The fact, if true, that congress have not hitherto made any roads for the carrying of the mail, would not affect the right, or touch the question. . . . But the argument would have it, that, because this exercise of the power, clearly within its scope, has been hitherto restrained to making existing roads post-roads, therefore congress cannot proceed constitutionally to make a post-road, where no road now exists. This is clearly what lawyers call a non sequitur. It might with just as much propriety be urged, that, because congress had not hitherto used a particular means to execute any other given power, therefore it could not now do it. If, for instance, congress had never provided a ship for the navy, except by purchase, they could not now authorize ships to be built for a navy, or à converso. . . . If they had never erected a custom-house, or court-house, they could not now do it. Such a mode of reasoning would be deemed by all persons wholly indefensible. . . .

It is said, that there is no reason, why congress should be invested with such a power, seeing that the state roads may, and will furnish convenient routes for the mail. When the state-roads do furnish such routes, there can certainly be no sound policy in congress making other routes. But there is a great difference between the policy of exercising a power, and the right of exercising it. But, suppose the state-roads do not furnish . . . suitable routes for the mails, what is then to be done? Is the power of the general government to be paralyzed? Suppose a mail-road is out of repair and founderous, cannot congress authorize the repair of it? If they can, why then not make it originally? Is the one more a means to an end, than the other? If not, then the power to carry the mails may be obstructed; nay, may be annihilated by the neglect of a state. . .

The supposed silence of the Federalist proves nothing. That work was principally designed to meet objections, and remove prejudices. . . .

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