Justice

The Eleventh Circuit’s Affordable Care Act Decision Cannot Be Squared With The Constitution

Eleventh Circuit Judge Frank Hull

The key passage in today’s opinion striking down part of the Affordable Care Act appears on page 113, where the two judge majority explains how they will determine whether this law is constitutional:

In answering whether the federal government may exercise this asserted power to issue a mandate for Americans to purchase health insurance from private companies, we next examine a number of issues: (1) the unprecedented nature of the individual mandate; (2) whether Congress’s exercise of its commerce authority affords sufficient and meaningful limiting principles; and (3) the far-reaching implications for our federalist structure.

This is one way to evaluate whether a law is constitutional, but a better way is to ask whether the law can be squared with text of the Constitution. The Constitution provides that Congress may “regulate Commerce…among the several states,” and the very first Supreme Court decision interpreting this language made clear that this power is “plenary,” meaning that Congress may choose whatever means it wishes to regulate interstate marketplaces such as the national health care market, so long as it does not violate another textual provision of the Constitution.

A law requiring most Americans to either carry insurance or pay slightly more taxes clearly regulates the national market for health care. It determines how people will finance health care purchases. It lowers the cost of health insurance. And it protects that market from something known as an “adverse selection death spiral.” So that should have been the end of the case. The Court cites no provision of the Constitution limiting Congress’ authority to pass this law because no such provision exists.

Instead, it imposes two extra-textual limits on national leaders’ ability to solve national problems. If the law is somehow “unprecedented,” and if a decision upholding the law lacks vague and undetermined “meaningful limit[s]” on Congress’ authority that somehow upset the balance between federal and state power, then the law must be struck down even if the Constitution’s text says otherwise.

Yet even if these two novel limits are taken seriously, the court’s analysis still makes no sense. For one thing, the law is only “unprecedented” in the sense that it preferred a market-driven solution to the problem of widespread uninsurance over more government driven solutions such as Medicare. The truth is that Congress already requires nearly all Americans to purchase health insurance — and they have done so for many years. Every year the federal government collects taxes which are in no way optional. A portion of these taxes are then spent to buy health insurance for the elderly (Medicare) for the poor (Medicaid) and for children (SCHIP).

So the only real question in this case is whether the government is required to first take your money and then buy health coverage for you, or whether the Constitution allows Congress to cut out the middle man.

The Court is also simply wrong to claim that a decision upholding the ACA would necessarily mean that there are no limits on federal power. The Constitution does not simply allow Congress to regulate commercial markets. It establishes that, in Justice Scalia’s words, “where Congress has the authority to enact a regulation of interstate commerce, it possesses every power needed to make that regulation effective.”

Scalia’s rule is important because the ACA doesn’t just require people to carry insurance, it also eliminates one of the insurance industry’s most abusive practices — denying coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions. This ban cannot function if patients are free to enter and exit the insurance market at will. If patients can wait until they get sick to buy insurance, they will drain all the money out of an insurance plan that they have not previously paid into, leaving nothing left for the rest of the plan’s consumers.

Because the ACA’s regulation of the national insurance market cannot function without a requirement that nearly every American carry insurance. this requirement is clearly constitutional under Justice Scalia’s statement that Congress possess “every power needed” to make it’s economic regulations effective. Moreover, upholding the Affordable Care Act under Justice Scalia’s rule would require a court to do nothing more than hold that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. There is no federal law which depends upon mandatory broccoli purchases, for example, in order to function properly in the same way that the ACA’s preexisting conditions provision can only function properly in the presence of an insurance coverage requirement. Accordingly, the court’s concern that upholding the law would destroy any limits on federal power is unwarranted.

As a final note, it is likely that conservatives will tout the fact that Judge Hull was appointed by President Clinton in the same way that progressives touted Bush-appointed Judge Sutton’s decision rejecting an ACA challenge. The two judges are not comparable, however. Judge Sutton is a former Scalia clerk who stood on the vanguard of the conservative legal movement for many years. Judge Hull, by contrast, is a compromise nominee Clinton selected in order to overcome obstruction from the Republican-controlled Senate.

Hull has a long record of conservative criminal and individual rights decisions. We now know that she is also very far to the right on questions of federal power. That is unfortunate, but it also places her well to the right of some of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members.

UPDATE

As Jonathan Cohn notes, Judge Marcus — who voted to uphold the law — is a Republican who was originally appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan. He was subsequently promoted to the Court of Appeals by Clinton.

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UPDATE

Conservative law professor Ann Althouse misrepresents my argument as claiming that “there’s virtually no limit to what Congress can do in the name of regulating commerce as long as ‘it does not violate another textual provision of the Constitution.'” I do not make this claim. Rather, I claim that Congress can regulate “interstate marketplaces” however it chooses so long as it does not violate another textual provision of the Constitution. This is the exact same position Chief Justice John Marshall took on the Commerce Clause, when he said that the Commerce power “is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations other than are prescribed in the Constitution.”

Althouse also asks “Could Congress ban abortion using its commerce power? Millhiser? Millhiser? Millhiser? Millhiser?” The answer to this question would be yes, except that an obscure case called Roe v. Wade held the the Due Process Clause prohibits such a law. There is nothing in the Commerce Clause itself that prevents Congress from attempting to eliminate the national marketplace for abortion in the same way that it tried to eliminate the national marketplace for marijuana.

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