Supreme Court upholds health care law: Chief Justice sides with left-leaning judges to allow individual mandate to stand
In a move that shocked many people due to the right-leaning nature of the U.S. Supreme Court, the core of President Barack Obama's signature law was upheld via a 5-4 decision handed down Thursday morning.
The controversial individual mandate, which required Americans to purchase and maintain health insurance, will not be applicable under the commerce clause, which allows Congress to regulate commerce. However, the majority of the court ruled that requiring Americans to purchase insurance or face a financial penalty was constitutional and will be allowed.
The majority decision, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, stated this penalty could be enforced under Congress' power to levy taxes. Roberts, however, did join the four conservative-leaning justices in a 5-4 vote that struck down the law's implementation under the commerce clause.
"The Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax," Roberts wrote. "Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
In a dissent, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy said they felt the law was overreaching and should be struck down.
"All of us consume food, and when we do so the federal government can prescribe what its quality must be and even how much we must pay," the foursome wrote. "But the mere fact that we all consume food and are thus, sooner or later, participants in the 'market' for food, does not empower the government to say when and what we will buy. That is essentially what this Act seeks to do with respect to the purchase of health care. It exceeds federal power."
Lackland Bloom, a constitutional law professor at SMU's Dedman School of Law, said in all of his discussions with colleagues leading up to the decision, he was not aware of anyone who predicted the court would act the way it did Thursday.
"This was really an extraordinary case," Bloom said. "On the one hand there were some really solid constitutional arguments that Congress went too far here, but on the other hand striking down a piece of legislation of this magnitude is a pretty significant deal.
"It just looks like Roberts kind of decided that No. 1, we shouldn't strike this down because that is too big of an order for the court, but on the other hand I think we should rein Congress in under the commerce clause and given that they could have done this under the taxing power, lets just treat this as if they did," he added.
Bloom noted there was no real controversy on whether Congress had the power to implement the health care law using its powers to levy taxes, but said both the president and Democrats in Congress avoided using that strategy since it would be viewed as a hugely unpopular tax increase. Instead, Congress called the payments for non-compliance a penalty, not a tax, a move which triggered the constitutional arguments under the commerce clause.
"My guess was that they were going to strike down the mandate on the commerce clause, as they did, and they would just kick it back to Congress and say 'if you want to raise taxes, you can fund this thing,'" Bloom said. "Of course with Republican control of the house, that couldn't have happened. And it probably wouldn't have happened when there was Democratic control of the House, which is why they so assiduously avoided talking about it under the taxing clause."
Even with the individual mandate ruled constitutional and the health care law still alive, Bloom believes the most important part of the ruling is the limitation on congressional powers dealing with the commerce clause.
"The ruling on the commerce clause gave the plaintiffs everything they wanted," he said. "They definitively rejected the notion that Congress could regulate inactivity under the commerce clause. That is not unimportant. Obviously everyone is focused on the specifics of the case and whether the health care act was constitutional or unconstitutional, but the bigger question was whether Congress had unlimited power under the commerce clause to regulate virtually anything."
Bloom said if the commerce clause argument wasn't rejected, the government would have had the power to order people to purchase anything, be it broccoli or a specific brand of automobile.
He said another important aspect of the case is the decision to prevent the federal government from withholding all Medicaid funds from states which fail to comply with the requirements of the expansion of the Medicaid program, an expansion which he described as being "extraordinarily expensive" and will cost each state a "huge amount of money."
"Basically the court said you can't do that because that is too coercive," Bloom said. "They said if the states decline to participate in the expansion, you can deprive them of the funds that would be given to them as part of the expansion, but you can't take away everything else."
As far as what the decision means politically, SMU political science professor Cal Jillson said he didn't think it would drastically alter the general dynamic of the November election.
"I think it is helpful for Obama because he doesn't have to explain to the American public why the Supreme Court struck down his signature domestic policy accomplishment," he said. "I don't think it makes a big difference to Romney because he is going to run against it anyway and argue that it is even more important now that he be elected and the Republicans have a majority of the Senate and House so they can overturn it."
With many polls showing less than 40 percent of Americans supporting the health care law, including only 37 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday; Jillson said the law will remain an essential part of Romney's election campaign even though the law was upheld by the Supreme Court.
"The Republican-based vote is adamantly against the law regardless of what the court said, and the moderate and independent vote in the middle has reservations about it as well," he said. "Romney will try and set those reservations in concrete and argue that he will repeal the law once he gets to Washington."
Shortly after the decision came down, U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson issued a statement, potentially outlining the Republican Party's future plans for dealing with the health care law.
"I have voted time and again to repeal Obamacare, and I remain committed to fully repealing this law in its entirety," Johnson said via email. "With common-sense reforms, we can make health insurance more affordable, more accessible and more available without further harming the economy. America is a government by the people, for the people and of the people -- and I hope that they vote down Obamacare in November."
Statements were also issued by a handful of other Texas Republicans, including state Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
"This ruling underscores what is at stake in November," Nelson said. "Taxpayers cannot afford the astronomic price tag of this ill-conceived plan, which will hurt employers and weaken our economy. The health care system is nowhere near ready for the massive influx of patients who will be forced to buy coverage, especially given our existing health care workforce shortages. The future of this law is now in the hands of voters."
The attorney general was more positive in his response, but added he will continue his fight against the "unworkable and unpopular" law.
Abbot said the Supreme Court made it clear that what Obama and the Democrats passed was a tax increase, something he said was ironic since the president insisted that was not the case. He added that the court made it clear the federal government is more restrained on Thursday than it was on Wednesday.
"Our challenge to Obamacare was never about healthcare or insurance -- it was about the rule of law and a fight against a federal government that continues to expand," he said. "In this respect, today's decision was a total victory. As the federal government seeks to impose the remainder of Obamacare, it must do so within the limits prescribed by the Constitution."