Professor Mark Hall, Fred D. & Elizabeth L. Turnage Professor of Law, Wake Forest University School of Law
Because insurance is necessary for decent access to health care, credible studies estimate that eliminating the Affordable Care Act or its individual mandate could cause thousands of avoidable deaths a year. That is sobering, but far more chilling is the loss of life that might result from the constitutional precedent that a negative ACA ruling would set. If the challengers’ chief argument is accepted, it creates the frightening prospect that the federal government may be unable to respond effectively to a catastrophic public health emergency that threatens millions of lives, if effective response requires mandating citizen behaviors unconditioned on any engagement in commerce.
Credible scenarios for natural disasters and flu pandemics might require just such federal actions, in the form of mandatory vaccination, evacuation, screening, treatment, or even mundane sanitary measures — and the Commerce Clause is the only source for such power when military defense is not involved. State and local governments are the primary source of authority for such measures, but recent disasters and near-misses demonstrate the real possibility that their responses may prove inadequate. Thus, rather than fretting over what slippery-slope vegetables the government might force people to purchase if the mandate were upheld, courts should be much more concerned about the insurmountable barriers that a nullifying precedent would set for effective federal response to realistic catastrophes.
[Ed. Note: Professor Hall's paper may be found here]
Like a tragic literary figure, the 11th Circuit’s opinion declaring the individual mandate unconstitutional is doomed to failure by its own internal contradictions. What follows is a series of quotes directly from the opinion, paired to show how desperately the majority twisted logic in order to find its path to a unsupportable conclusion:
1. On the key necessary and proper argument, the court obfuscated as follows:
The government’s argument derives from a Commerce Clause doctrine of recent  vintage: . . . the “essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity” language in Lopez. . . . Raich [is the] the only instance in which a statute has been sustained by the larger regulatory scheme doctrine.
HOWEVER, the court was well aware that
The Supreme Court’s most definitive statement of the Necessary and Proper Clause’s function remains Chief Justice Marshall’s articulation in McCulloch v.Maryland: 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 421 (1819).
2. Wearing this historical and precedential blinder, the court framed the relevant test as whether the mandate is “essential” to the ACA’s overall regulatory scheme:
[W]e conclude that the Supreme Court’s “larger regulatory scheme” doctrine embodies an observation put forth in the New Deal case of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.: “Although activities may be intrastate in character when separately considered, if they have such a close and substantial relation to interstate commerce that their control is essential or appropriate to protect that commerce from burdens and obstructions, Congress cannot be denied the power to exercise that control.” . . . [The failure to purchase insurance] in no way “burdens” or “obstructs” Congress’s ability to enforce its regulation of the insurance industry. . . . The government’s assertion that the individual mandate is “essential” to Congress’s broader economic regulation is further undermined by components of the Act itself.
BUT, of course, “essential,” “burden,” and “obstruct” are not the operative tests. Instead, the court itself explained earlier in its decision that a much more lenient rational basis test applies:
“the Necessary and Proper Clause makes clear that the Constitution’s grants of specific federal legislative authority are accompanied by broad power to enact laws that are ‘convenient, or useful’ or ‘conducive’ to the authority’s ‘beneficial exercise.’” . . . On the breadth of the Necessary and Proper Clause, the Comstock Court noted that The Supreme Court must determine whether a federal statute “constitutes a means that is rationally related to the implementation of a constitutionally enumerated power.” “[T]he relevant inquiry is simply ‘whether the means chosen are reasonably adapted to the attainment of a legitimate end under the commerce power’ or under other powers that the Constitution grants Congress the authority to implement.”
The court never invokes or applies this test, even though (and perhaps because) it is one that the government easily meets.
3. On whether the mandate relates to commerce:
[W]e are not persuaded that the formalistic dichotomy of activity and inactivity provides a workable or persuasive enough answer in this case. Although the Supreme Court’s Commerce Clause cases frequently speak in activity-laden terms, the Court has never expressly held that activity is a precondition for Congress’s ability to regulate commerce–perhaps, in part, because it has never been faced with the type of regulation at issue here. . . . As an inferior court, we may not craft new dichotomies … not recognized by Supreme Court doctrine. . . .
BUT, of course the decision was all about a new categorical limit:
[T]he Act is forcing market entry by those outside the market . . . Until Congress passed the Act, the power to regulate commerce had not included the authority to issue an economic mandate. Now Congress seeks not only the power to reach a new class of “activity”–financial decisions whose effects are felt some time in the future–but it wishes to do so through a heretofore untested power: an economic mandate. . . . [T]his distinction . . . in truth  strikes at the heart of whether Congress has acted within its enumerated power. Individuals subjected to this economic mandate have not made a voluntary choice to enter the stream of commerce, but instead are having that choice imposed upon them by the federal government. . . . Never before has Congress sought to regulate commerce by compelling non-market participants to enter into commerce so that Congress may regulate them. . . . The individual mandate does not wait for market entry.
4. On the slippery slope concern:
To connect this conduct to interstate commerce would . . . allow Congress to regulate anything. . . . To give but one example, Congress could undoubtedly require every American to purchase liability insurance, lest the consequences of their negligence or inattention lead to unfunded costs (medical and otherwise) passed on to others in the future . . .
BUT, why is this any real concern, considering:
The fact that Congress has never before exercised this supposed authority is telling . . . Few powers, if any, could be more attractive to Congress than compelling the purchase of certain products. Yet even if we focus on the modern era, when congressional power under the Commerce Clause has been at its height, Congress still has not asserted this authority. Even in the face of a Great Depression, a World War, a Cold War, recessions, oil shocks, inflation, and unemployment, Congress never sought to require the purchase of wheat or war bonds, force a higher savings rate or greater consumption of American goods, or require every American to purchase a more fuel efficient vehicle . . . .
5. On the mandate’s fit with legislative purposes, the court complained that:
the individual mandate’s attempt to reduce the number of the uninsured and correct the cost-shifting problem is woefully overinclusive.
BUT, the court also criticized the mandate for being underinclusive:
Even if the individual mandate remained intact, the “adverse selection” problem identified by Congress would persist not only with respect to [the] eight broad exemptions, but also with respect to those healthy persons who choose to pay the mandate penalty. . . . Additionally, Congress has hamstrung its own efforts to ensure compliance with the mandate by opting for toothless enforcement mechanisms.
6. The court thought the mandate is not necessary to regulate insurers because:
[T]he conduct regulated by the individual mandate–an individual’s decision not to purchase health insurance and the concomitant absence of a commercial transaction–in no way “burdens” or “obstructs” Congress’s ability to enforce its regulation of the insurance industry.
BUT, the court conceded there is universal agreement that the mandate is needed to combat adverse selection:
Distinguished economists have filed helpful briefs on both sides of the case. While they disagree on some things, they agree about the theory of adverse selection. They agree some relatively healthy people refrain from, or opt out of, buying health insurance more often than people who are unhealthy or sick seek insurance. This results in a smaller and less healthy pool of insured persons for private insurance companies.
AND, in an analogous regulatory arena (flood insurance), the court went to some length to explain that:
Without an “individual mandate,” the flood insurance program has largely been a failure. . . . One key reason for this low participation is not surprising. . . . People living in a flood plain know that even if they do not have insurance, they can count on the virtually guaranteed availability of federal funds.
7. Finally, on the government’s burden of persuasion, the court reflexively said:
We, as all federal courts, must begin with a presumption of constitutionality . . . We are loath to invalidate an act of Congress, and do so only after extensive circumspection.
BUT of course how it really thought and reasoned was:
[T[he government has been unable, either in its briefs or at oral argument, to point this Court to Supreme Court precedent that addresses the constitutionality [or economic mandates]. . . . The government’s position . . . affords no limiting principles in which to confine Congress’s enumerated power. . . . [T]he government’s insistence that we defer to Congress’s fact findings underscores the lack of any judicially enforceable stopping point . . . . At best, we can say that the uninsured may, at some point in the unforeseeable future, create [a] cost-shifting consequence. Yet this readily leads to a scenario where we must “pile inference upon inference” to sustain Congress’s legislation . . . . The government’s factbased criteria would lead to expansive involvement by the courts in congressional legislation, requiring us to sit in judgment over when the situation is serious enough to justify an economic mandate.
Mark A. Hall, J.D., is the Fred D. & Elizabeth L. Turnage Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law and a regular contributor to Seton Hall Law School’s Health Reform Watch. He is one of the nation’s leading scholars in the areas of health care law and policy and medical and bioethics and also teaches in the MBA program at the Babcock School and is on the research faculty at Wake Forest’s Medical School. He regularly consults with government officials, foundations and think tanks about health care public policy issues, and was recently awarded the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics distinguished teaching award. He is the author or editor of fifteen books, including Making Medical Spending Decisions (Oxford University Press), and Health Care Law and Ethics (Aspen). He has published scholarship in the law reviews at Berkeley, Chicago, Duke, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Stanford, and his articles have been reprinted in a dozen casebooks and anthologies.
On first read, the most striking aspect of Judge Vinson’s ruling today is not its remedy — striking the Affordable Care Act in its entirety — but the impression one gets that the opinion was written in part as a Tea Party Manifesto. At least half of the relevant part of the opinion is devoted to discussing what Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson and other Founding Fathers would have thought about the individual mandate, including the following remarkably telling passage (p. 42):
It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the same Founders wrote a Constitution that allowed the federal government to take property from unwilling sellers and passive owners, when needed to construct highways, bridges and canals. But Judge Vinson dismissed those and other examples with the briefest of parenthetical asides: “(all of [these] are obviously distinguishable)” (p. 39). Instead, he twice cites and quotes the lower court opinion in Schechter Poultry (pp. 53, 55), which struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act, at the height of the Great Depression and the pinnacle of Lochner jurisprudence.
Still, it’s fair enough to conclude, absent controlling precedent, that being uninsured might not constitute interstate commerce. What’s harder to swallow is the judge’s rejection of the Necessary and Proper Clause. In refusing to sever the individual mandate, he not only concedes the mandate “is indisputably necessary to the Act’s insurance market reforms, which are, in turn, indisputably necessary to . . . what Congress was ultimately seeking to accomplish,” he astonishingly devotes about ten pages (63-74) to hammering home the mandate’s necessity, explaining, for instance, that:
this Act has been analogized to a finely crafted watch . . . . It has approximately 450 separate pieces, but one essential piece (the individual mandate) is defective and must be removed. It cannot function as originally designed. There are simply too many moving parts in the Act and too many provisions dependent (directly and indirectly) on the individual mandate and other health insurance provisions — which, as noted, were the chief engines that drove the entire legislative effort — for me to try and dissect out the proper from the improper
So if the mandate is so clearly necessary, why is it not “proper.” The answer, as in Virginia’s Judge Hudson’s opinion, is a virtual tautology: because the Commerce Clause does not permit it. Here are critical excerpts:
the Clause is not an independent source of federal power (p. 58) . . . Ultimately, the Necessary and Proper Clause vests Congress with the power and authority to exercise means which may not in and of themselves fall within an enumerated power, to accomplish ends that must be within an enumerated power. (p. 60)
In light of [United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters], the “end” of regulating the health care insurance industry (including preventing insurers from excluding or charging higher rates to people with pre-existing conditions) is clearly “legitimate” and “within the scope of the constitution.” But, the means used to serve that end must be “appropriate,” “plainly adapted,” and not “prohibited” or inconsistent “with the letter and spirit of the constitution.” . . . The Necessary and Proper Clause cannot be utilized to “pass laws for the accomplishment of objects” that are not within Congress’ enumerated powers. (p. 62)
The defendants have asserted again and again that the individual mandate is absolutely “necessary” and “essential” for the Act to operate as it was intended by Congress. I accept that it is. Nevertheless, the individual mandate falls outside the boundary of Congress’ Commerce Clause authority and cannot be reconciled with a limited government of enumerated powers. By definition, it cannot be “proper.” (p. 63)
My full rebuttal is here, but in brief: none of this is consistent with Comstock, which allows the federal government to commit mentally ill former prisoners to civil treatment, despite the clear absence of any general federal civil commitment power. And this is inconsistent with Lopez and with Justice Scalia’s concurrence in Raich, which note that regulation, otherwise forbidden, of local noneconomic activities, can be justified when this is “an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity, in which the regulatory scheme could be undercut unless the intrastate activity were regulated.” Thus, we still await a convincing explanation of why rejecting the “necessary and proper” defense is consistent with recent Supreme Court opinions, authored or joined by most of the conservative justices.
The following article, forthcoming in U. Penn. L. Rev., pinpoints the strongest arguments for and against federal power under the Commerce Clause to mandate the purchase of health insurance: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1747189
Among the key points I make in defense of this federal law are:
1. The “commerce” in question is simply health insurance, and not the non-purchase of insurance as challengers have framed it. Because “regulate” clearly allows both prohibitions and mandates of behavior, mandating purchase is lexically just as valid an application of the clause as is prohibiting purchase or mandating the sale of insurance.
2. Although existing precedent might allow a line to be drawn between economic activity and inactivity, there is no reason in principle or theory why such a line should be drawn in order to preserve state sovereignty. Purchase mandates, after all, are as rare under state law as under federal law.
3. Challengers do not seriously dispute the constitutional validity of the ACA’s regulation of insurers or the economic necessity of the mandate in order for that regulation to be effective. In fact, they essentially concede the mandate’s necessity by asking to strike the entire law if it is declared invalid. Accordingly, the mandate would pass the tests for constitutional necessity articulated by at least seven of the Justices in the Comstock opinion last year, and might even pass the necessity test embraced by Justices Thomas and Scalia.
4. An important challenge, not yet clearly discussed by court opinions to date, is that the mandate does not, strictly speaking, simply “carry into execution” Congress’ other regulatory powers, but is the exercise of a distinct power. However, both modern and historical precedents under the Necessary and Proper Clause are not limited narrowly to merely implementation measures. Both Comstock and a series of decisions under the Postal Power are good examples to the contrary since they authorize independent federal powers that expand the range of purposes and measures permitted by express Congressional powers.
5. There is no coherent basis for declaring a purchase mandate to be constitutionally “improper,” and a categorical ban on regulating inactivity would contradict the implicit reasoning underlying several other established precedents — such as those upholding the draft and the Congressional subpoena power. Also, federal eminent domain allows compelled transactions justified in part by the Necessary and Proper clause’s expansion of the commerce power, when applied, for instance, to citizen’s refusal to sell land for use in constructing highways, bridges, and canals.
6. Using the 10th Amendment to justify a categorical prohibition of purchase mandates (as Randy Barnett has argued) would be no more convincing than using the 9th or 5th Amendments (substantive due process). Instead, such a move would, for the first time and contrary to precedent, make the 10th a protector of individual liberties rather than just federalism concerns, and would radically enforce an absolute right to economic liberty, regardless of level of legislative justification or judicial scrutiny (see point 9).
7. Slippery slope concerns are no greater here than for any other of a range of expansive federal powers. Instead, the novelty of the mandate subjects it to greater political constraint, and so “parade of horribles” concerns may be even more unrealistic than similar settings where the Court has rejected them.
8. Grounding the mandate in the Necessary and Proper clause helps to confine its precedential effect by emphasizing it’s necessary role in the ACA’s particular regulatory scheme that, in other respects, clearly resides within the core of the conventional commerce power. This essential supportive and interconnected role is not shared by free-standing mandates to purchase American cars or broccoli, for instance.
9. Counteracting imaginary slippery slope concerns about absurd hypothetical laws are the legitimate concerns about insurmountable barriers that a prohibition of purchase mandates would erect. Forbidding Congress from any purchase mandate could cripple necessary efforts, for instance, to require preventive measures in the face of a massive pandemic that threatened tens of millions of lives.
This 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. . . .