More than a few prognosticators have posited a 5-4 split (either way) after reading the tea leaves of oral argument before the Supreme Court on the Individual Mandate today. I don’t disagree. I won’t venture a guess, up or down, but I will say that it is likely, as usual, that Justice Kennedy (surprise, surprise) will be the swing vote. As such, you can find below three Justice Kennedy quotes that may be indicative of which way he’ll swing. (page numbers refer to the page number of the transcript, linked here.) And for those of you swallowed by sorrow at the prospect of the Individual Mandate going down in flames, pay particular attention to the last quote and Justice Kennedy’s consideration of “degrees” of uniqueness as a cabining principle. It is, I believe, as I heard a particularly astute health law professor say today, indicative that “Justice Kennedy is in play.”
JUSTICE KENNEDY–Could you help — help me with this. Assume for the moment — you may disagree. Assume for the moment that this is unprecedented, this is a step beyond what our cases have allowed, the affirmative duty to act to go into commerce. If that is so, do you not have a heavy burden of justification?
I understand that we must presume laws are constitutional, but, even so, when you are changing the
relation of the individual to the government in this, what we can stipulate is, I think, a unique way, do you not have a heavy burden of justification to show authorization under the Constitution? (p.11-12)
JUSTICE KENNEDY: But the reason, the reason this is concerning is because it requires the individual to do an affirmative act. In the law of torts, our tradition, our law has been that you don’t have the duty to rescue someone if that person is in danger. The blind man is walking in front of a car and you do not have a duty to stop him, absent some relation between you. And there is some severe moral criticisms of that rule, but that’s generally the rule.
And here the government is saying that the Federal Government has a duty to tell the individual citizen that it must act, and that is different from what we have in previous cases, and that changes the relationship of the Federal Government to the individual in a very fundamental way.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: And the government tells us that’s because the insurance market is unique. And in the next case, it’ll say the next market is unique. But I think it is true that if most questions in life are matters of degree, in the insurance and health care world, both markets — stipulate two markets — the young person who is uninsured is uniquely proximately very close to affecting the rates of insurance and the costs of providing medical care in a way that is not true in other industries.
That’s my concern in the case. (p. 104)