By now, you likely have heard that the Supreme Court has upheld the individual mandate part of Obamacare. Like me, your initial reaction was likely one of disappointment. However, after reading the ruling, you may have also found a silver lining in this ruling that gets down to the very heart of why the mandate was such a scary thing; governmental overreach.
In the majority opinion written by Chief Justices Roberts:
“The individual mandate cannot be upheld as an exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause,” and “That Clause authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce, not to order individuals to engage in it.”
The majority also said that the Necessary and Proper Clause also did not warrant upholding the individual mandate.
“Even if the individual mandate is necessary to the Act’s insurance reforms,” and Roberts added that, “such an expansion of federal power is not a proper means for making those reforms effective.”
This is the first time since the New Deal that the Supreme Court invalidated a law because it attempted to force states into an action by using its spending powers.
George Will wrote this today “Conservatives won a substantial victory on Thursday.”
How can this be, Obamacare was found to be constitutional?
The answer is because it was found constitutional under Congresses power to tax. Obamacare does not mandate you to buy health insurance; it only taxes you if you choose not to.
According to Will, “The case challenged the court to fashion a judicially administrable principle that limits Congress' power to act on the mere pretense of regulating interstate commerce. At least Roberts got the court to embrace emphatic language rejecting the Commerce Clause rationale for penalizing the inactivity of not buying insurance.”
Here is the majority’s opinion on this:
"The power to regulate commerce presupposes the existence of commercial activity to be regulated. ... The individual mandate, however, does not regulate existing commercial activity. It instead compels individuals to become active in commerce by purchasing a product, on the ground that their failure to do so affects interstate commerce. Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority. ... Allowing Congress to justify federal regulation by pointing to the effect of inaction on commerce would bring countless decisions an individual could potentially make within the scope of federal regulation, and – under the government's theory – empower Congress to make those decisions for him."
Sean Trende summed this up when he said “But judicial conservatives who are not just concerned about the outcome got more than they could have reasonably hoped for. Doctrinally speaking, this case will likely be remembered as a watershed decision for conservatives.”
“Five justices just signaled to lower courts that, but for the unique taxation power argument, they were prepared to rule that a major act of Congress that plainly touched upon economic activity exceeded Congress’ commerce powers. Right now, liberals are seemingly too busy celebrating their win, and conservatives bemoaning their loss, to realize the significance of this.”
This ruling did not give conservatives the short-term victory that they were looking for, however, for the long term; this could mean huge victories down the road. Roberts had decided to put the courts legacy ahead of his personal feelings about the wisdom of the law.