Stanford Law Faculty React to Health Care Ruling
Stanford Law School's constitutional experts sound off over the historic SCOTUS ruling on the Affordable Care Act Thursday.
- Michael McConnell, director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center: Today was a great day for constitutional principle, not such a great day for sound health care policy. In an extraordinary display of legal dexterity, Chief Justice John Roberts crafted an opinion that left the ironically named “Affordable Care Act” mostly intact, while at the same time reaffirming — indeed strengthening — the limited nature of federal power under the Constitution. By a 5-4 vote, the Court rejected the Administration’s claim that the power to regulate commerce among the states is broad enough to require unwilling individuals to purchase private health insurance. And perhaps more significantly, an even more decisive 7-2 majority held that Congress cannot compel states to participate in a new or greatly expanded federal program by threat of revoking prior benefits. Only by defining the Act’s penalty provisions as a “tax” — directly contrary to President Obana’s assurances at the time of enactment — did the Court uphold the mandate. That ruling may twist the language of the statute a bit, but it does not enlarge or distort the constitutional powers of Congress. The Chief Justice thus scrupulously avoided interfering with the policy decisions of Congress. Those who had hoped a decision against the Act would give Congress a second shot at passing genuine health care reform must be disappointed, but it is not the Court’s role to rescue the nation from improvident policies. As an exercise in constitutional jurisprudence, which is the Court’s proper role, the decision deserves high praise. Both sides in this conflict can correctly claim victory. President Obama’s signature legislative achievement survived constitutional challenge, but on the narrowest of rationales. On both Commerce Clause and Spending Clause issues, the challengers won the case
- I’m not surprised by this. What actually surprises me is two things. One is that the vote was 5-4. I would have expected it to be 6-3 on the taxing issue—that is, I would have expected Chief Justice Roberts would have brought Justice Kennedy along on that. So that’s the first thing that’s surprising.
- PK: One thing that’s very interesting is that the three main opinions—that is, the chief justice’s opinion, Justice Ginsberg’s opinion, and the joint dissent—have these little hints in them that, at some point, it looked as if the act was going to be struck down outright. Because the joint opinion has sections in it that wouldn’t have been necessary if the chief justice’s opinion had been the lead opinion from the beginning. That is, the joint opinion spends a lot of time explaining why the Medicaid expansion is unconstitutional—or, not why the Medicaid expansion is unconstitutional, but why threatening to take away the states’ existing Medicaid funding would be unconstitutional.
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