Comprehensive and Informative Commentary on State and Federal Legal Matters
As someone who regularly peruses the legal blogosphere, tirelessly searching for tidbits of real reporting among a deluge of repetitive editorializing, I was pleased to find that a number of intelligent articles have been written regarding yesterday’s announcement that the Supreme Court will hear challenges to the Obama administration’s health care plan. What many of these articles fail to do, however, is to take an in-depth look that this potentially historic announcement from a legal prospective. So, at the risk of editorializing, let’s take a few minutes to peer a bit deeper into the legal reasoning behind, and potential consequences of, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments in this case.
To begin at the beginning, here is a brief timeline of the events that have lead to yesterday’s announcement:
December 24, 2009: The Senate (with a vote of 60-39) votes to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
March 21, 2010: The House (voting 219-212) votes to pass the act, thereby sending it on to President Obama to sign into law. This vote marked the first time in modern history that a piece of legislation passed through both houses of Congress without a single vote from Republican law makers.
March 23, 2010: President Obama signs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. The new law is also known as PPACA, or “Obamacare.”
September 2010-January 2011: A majority of U.S. states, as well as a number of independent organizations file suit, both individually and jointly, against the United States. Though these suits challenge various aspects of the health care bill, the major issue is whether Congress has the Constitutional power to mandate that all American citizens buy health care plans. Chief among these law suits was Florida et al v. United States Department of Health and Human Services , a joint suit representing 26 states.
January 1, 2011: U.S. District Jude Roger Vinson, ruling in the above mentioned case, declares the individual mandate clause of the health care act unconstitutional. Given that the PPACA was not written in such a way that sections of it could be excluded or nullified without the entire act being so treated, Judge Vinson further concludes that the entire act must be struck down as unconstitutional.
August 12, 2011: A three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed Judge Vinson’s ruling. In their conclusion, the Court of Appeals chose to uphold it in part and to overturn it in part. The Court found that while the individual mandate was unconstitutional, the rest of the Act was not in violation of the Constitution. In other words, the Act is legal as long as the individual mandate is taken out.
September 2011: Multiple petitions for writs of certiorari were filed with the Supreme Court. These petitions were essentially formal requests to the Supreme Court to act as an arbitrator in the case and were filed by parties on both sides of the debate.
November 14, 2011: The Supreme Court granted the writ of certiorari and agreed to hear argument on the issue of whether the Obama administration’s health care plan is enforceable under the Constitution.
The debate at hand is one that is largely, if not entirely, based on Constitutional interpretations and broader theories of legal reasoning and governance. On the one hand, the Obama administration and other supporters of the Act contend that Congress has the power to mandate health care and that the passage of the Act constitutes a historic achievement that will provide a better future for all Americans. Conversely, Republicans nationwide, as well as other groups who oppose the Act, have deemed its passage a profound abuse of Congressional power and a classic example of the dangers of ever expanding Federal government. It is their view that the Act will open the door to further degradation of individual rights and liberties, as well as to future weakening of states’ rights.
With a number of federal courts found fault with in the Act, the ant-Obamacare view has gained considerable coverage in the press as of late. However, that is not to say that the argument for the PPACA has fallen on deaf ears. In fact, the Obama administration gained what is perhaps its biggest legal victory just last week when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the PPACA. By applying an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution and a restrained view of judicial power, the Court concluded that the Commerce clause of the Constitution—which states that “Congress shall have Power … To regulate commerce … among the several states”—enables the legislator to enforce the individual mandate aspect of Obama’s plan. Defining “regulate” as “to prescribe certain measures,” or “to adjust by rule or method,” D.C.’s Judge Silberman concludes that the Commerce Clause permits the Federal government to “require action.” Additionally, the D.C. judge addressed the concern that the Act’s individual mandate is a violation of individual rights, guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, by stating that the following:
“[The individual mandate] certainly is an encroachment on individual liberty, but it is no more so than a command that restaurants or hotels are obliged to serve all customers regardless of race…The right to be free from federal regulation is not absolute, and yields to the imperative that Congress be free to forge national solutions to national problems, no matter how local—or seemingly passive—their individual origins.”
While many disagree with this interpretation of the Constitution, the D.C. Circuit Court’s finding remains salient simply because it adds a new and intellectually-exciting component to the health care debate. With high-level courts weighing in with hard-hitting, Constitutionally-based arguments both for and against the Act, the national debate over health care reform has transformed into a political and legal battle that cuts right to the heart of the American system of government. For a nation that constantly complains of disenfranchisement and of feeling removed from the political process, no issue could be better suited to spark a response from the masses. Not only is the on-going debate on Obamacare tremendously important on the individual level (its outcome will undoubtedly effect all Americans), but it also provides the platform for a more open debate on American political values and the future of American governance than this country has seen in some time. Individually, the concern might be “Do I, as a citizen, want to be forced to buy healthcare under penalty of law?” Nationally and collectively, however, the question at hand is, “What type of America do we, the people, want to live in: one in which Federal powers dictate private actions in an effort to provide equality of outcome, or one in which individual liberty remains sacrosanct and private effort and market forces, not Federal mandates, are left to rule the economic world?”
Regardless of how we chose to weigh in on this question, what is important is that we actually weigh in. It is not every day that we, as a country, are presented with such an ideal platform through which we can debate issues that are of fundamental importance to the future of our great nation. Rather than allowing ourselves to get caught up in the endless sea of pundit chatter or turned off by the prolonged nature of the political process, we must remain patiently and vigilantly engaged in this issue. It is essential that the people of America join in this debate and make our voices heard, for there is much more at stake here than just health care reform. The way this Act is addressed has the potential to either reaffirm or redefine the structure through which we govern ourselves. As such, the issue at hand is about more than just how the Supreme Court will decide, it is about how the future ofAmerica will be shaped.