The Roberts Rules
The Chief Justice rewrites ObamaCare in order to save it.
Thursday was destined to be an historic day for American liberty, and it was, though the new precedent is grim. The remarkable decision upholding the Affordable Care Act is shot through with confusion—the mandate that's really a tax, except when it isn't, and the government whose powers are limited and enumerated, except when they aren't. One thing is clear: This was a one-man show, and that man is John Roberts.
The Chief Justice ruled that ObamaCare's mandate violated the Commerce Clause, joined by the Court's conservative bloc, but he also said that the mandate fell within Congress's power to tax, joined by the Court's liberal bloc. In practice this is a restraint on federal power without real restraint—and, worse, the Chief Justice had to rewrite the statute Congress passed in order to salvage it. The ruling will stand as one of the great what-might-have-beens of American constitutional law.
The novel question raised by ObamaCare's command to buy health insurance or else pay a penalty—the first-ever purchase mandate in U.S. history—was whether Congress could create commerce in order to regulate it. In his 1-4-4 opinion, Chief Justice Roberts writes that construing the Commerce Clause as the Obama Administration argued "would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority. . . . The Framers gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it, and for over 200 years both our decisions and Congress's actions have reflected this understanding."
Note that this rejection of federal compulsion, which the four conservatives supported albeit in dissent, is the same one that the liberal legal establishment spent years deriding as frivolous and beyond debate: Of course Washington has carte blanche to do whatever it wants to do. "That is not the country the Framers of our Constitution envisioned," the Chief Justice writes, before going on to envision it himself by grounding the mandate in Congress's power to "lay and collect Taxes."
According to Chief Justice Roberts, the penalty is merely a tax on not owning health insurance, no different from "buying gasoline or earning income," and it thus complies with the Constitution. This a large loophole. The result is that Washington has unlimited power to impose new purchase mandates and the courts will find them constitutional if Congress calls them taxes, or even if it calls them something else and judges call them taxes.
That was true with ObamaCare. The Pelosi Democrats explicitly structured the mandate as a regulatory "penalty." Congress voted down a direct tax in 2009. Supreme Court precedents going back to the 1920s and 1930s define penalties and taxes as mutually exclusive and critically different.
Every lower court that heard the health-care cases rejected the taxing argument. Administration lawyers devoted only 21 lines of their reply brief to this argument and it barely came up at oral arguments. The Chief Justice in effect revised the statute in order to find it constitutional.
But if the mandate is really a tax, why doesn't the law known as the Anti-Injunction Act apply, which says that taxes can't be challenged legally until they've been collected? The Chief Justice actually rules that the mandate is a tax under the Constitution and a mandate for the purposes of tax law.
In their brutal (and, in a rarity, jointly signed) dissent, Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito write that the Chief Justice's logic "is not to interpret the statute but to rewrite it. . . . One would expect this Court to demand more than fly-by-night briefing and argument before deciding a difficult constitutional question of first impression." They score the Chief Justice for carrying "verbal wizardry too far, deep into the forbidden land of the sophists."
Justice Kennedy dissented angrily from the bench, and it is to his credit that he defended the federalist system of shared powers that is the hallmark of his years on the Court. The particular tragedy is that four Justices would have overturned not merely the purchase mandate but all of ObamaCare as unconstitutional. Only John Roberts prevented it.
One telling note is that the dissent refers repeatedly to "Justice Ginsburg's dissent" and "the dissent" on the mandate, but of course they should be referring to Ruth Bader Ginsburg's concurrence. This wording and other sources suggest that there was originally a 5-4 majority striking down at least part of ObamaCare, but then the Chief Justice changed his mind.
The Justices may never confirm this informed speculation. But if it is true, this is far more damaging to the Court's institutional integrity that the Chief Justice is known to revere than any ruling against ObamaCare. The political class and legal left conducted an extraordinary campaign to define such a decision as partisan and illegitimate. If the Chief Justice capitulated to this pressure, it shows the Court can be intimidated and swayed from its constitutional duties. If this was a play to compete with John Marshall's legacy, the result is closer to William Brennan's.
The Court did rule 7-2 against ObamaCare's expansion of Medicaid, the supposedly voluntary federal-state program that once covered only the poor. The majority included liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, who held this expansion to be unconstitutional because the feds commandeered state resources.
The problem is that this also involved rewriting the law. The majority merely created an opt-out that Governors and states could elect to preserve some measure of independent control, instead of telling Congress to start over. Still, this is the first time the Court has found a law enacted under Congress's spending power to be unconstitutionally coercive.
But this and even the five votes limiting Congress under the Commerce Clause pale against the Chief Justice's infinitely elastic and dangerous interpretation of the taxing power. Nancy Pelosi famously said we need to pass ObamaCare to find out what's in it. It turns out we also needed John Roberts to write his appendix.