Federal Judge Roger Vinson of the Northern District of Florida has declared Obamacare unconstitutional in a lawsuit joined by numerous states seeking to escape from the onerous burdens that the law places upon them. But when I read that his rationale is that the mandate requiring people to buy health insurance exceeds the power of Congress under the commerce clause, I became a little bit sad — sad not because Judge Vinson is just dangling the dream of a new attempt to use commerce clause jurisprudence to limit the government’s meddling in the economy, but because there is only about a one in 100 chance that the United States Supreme Court will agree with his reasoning.
There was a time when Congress could only pass laws authorized by the specific enumerated powers of the Constitution. (This is ostensibly still true, but most congressmen don’t take it seriously.) One of those powers, indicated by the commerce clause, is the major one that Congress uses to destroy — I mean, to regulate — the economy. The commerce clause states: “Congress shall have power… to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” In my constitutional law class final exam two years ago, I argued that the commerce clause clearly gives Congress precisely the same power to regulate economic activity within a state that it has to regulate economic activity within foreign nations, and since we obviously cannot march into France and order them to have a minimum wage or a health insurance mandate, and we can really only regulate goods from France that come across the Atlantic Ocean, the commerce clause means that Congress can only regulate goods that physically cross state lines. I got an A in the class.
However, most lawyers don’t think that way. Even back in the 1800s the commerce clause case law said that Congress could regulate anything that did not take place entirely within one state. There was a time before the New Deal when the Supreme Court still took the commerce clause seriously and tried its hardest to allow Congress only to regulate interstate commerce. But this interfered with the New Deal. So, after FDR threatened the court with his infamous court-packing scheme, the Court made a “switch in time that saved nine,” in the landmark case of NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937); it began to undermine the commerce clause by permitting the commerce power to extend wherever commerce within one state had effects across state lines.
Later, US v. Darby (1941) made it clear that the commerce clause was now a joke and Congress could do anything it wanted. To throw a little paint on the feces, the Court decided Wickard v. Filburn (1942), which said that a private individual’s private behavior within one state could be “interstate commerce” under an aggregation theory that proposed the questions: “What if everybody did this? Would the aggregate cumulative effects have an impact on interstate commerce?” This meant that a person growing tomatoes in his own farm for his personal consumption could be engaged in interstate commerce, even though the tomatoes never left his farm, because he was somehow magically connected to all the other tomato farmers out there — a conclusion that is ridiculous only if one does not understand that it is a mere pretext for socialism. FDR’s supporters argued that economics had somehow fundamentally changed since America’s founding, and the law needed to change with it.
Commerce clause jurisprudence remained buried for decades, but in a shallow grave. In the 1990s, Chief Justice Rehnquist, with help from Justice Thomas and the Court’s other conservatives, tried to revive the distinction between economic and noneconomic, and national and local, in cases such as US v. Lopez (1995), which struck down a gun ban under the commerce power, and US v. Morrison (2000), which struck down an anti-gender violence law as having nothing to do with interstate commerce. Then Justice Scalia murdered Rehnquist’s commerce clause revival in Raich v. Gonzales (2005), saying that the commerce power authorized the criminalization of medical marijuana because of the necessary and proper clause: “Congress shall have power . . . to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers.” For some reason, Scalia failed to understand that the necessary and proper clause is irrelevant if Congress cannot pass a law under the commerce clause in the first place.
The fate of America’s healthcare system now turns on how the Supreme Court will interpret the commerce clause, whether the justices will hold that the aggregate effects of choosing not to buy health insurance constitute interstate commerce. I predict that the vote will go along political ideological lines, as the choice of whether to take the commerce clause seriously as a limit on Congress’s power is as much a political as a legal decision. But there is no way to tell how Justice Kennedy will vote, and it is still too early to tell how Obama’s appointees will vote. Still, I estimate that there is only a 1% chance that Obamacare will be struck down. It has been many decades since the commerce clause limitation had teeth; and the Court will be afraid of accusations that it is frustrating the will of the American voters if it strikes Obamacare down, even though it is the role of the judiciary to check the tyranny of the majority, and most Americans don’t like Obamacare, anyway.
Nonetheless, if libertarians are to make ourselves known in the legal world, then the commerce clause is one of the main weapons that will need to be in our arsenal. We can hope that one day our constitutional jurisprudence will return America to the Founding Fathers’ vision of a federal government that cannot do whatever it wants. As my constitutional law professor was fond of saying, constitutional doctrines fade away, but they can always come back, and there are libertarian legal doctrines from American history that we can revive if and when we develop the power to make our voices heard in within the legal system.