Magazine article The New Yorker

Heavy Burden

Magazine article The New Yorker

Heavy Burden

Article excerpt

It's well known by now that Donald Verrilli, Jr., the Solicitor General, had an off day at the Supreme Court last Tuesday, when he was called on to defend the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the part of the Affordable Care Act which requires people to buy health insurance. Still, it's worth noting the magnitude of the challenge that he was facing. The key issue in the case is whether Congress, in passing the law, exceeded its powers under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which allows the government to regulate interstate commerce. Consider, then, this question, posed to Verrilli by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy: "Assume for the moment that this"--the mandate--"is unprecedented, this is a step beyond what our cases have allowed, the affirmative duty to act to go into commerce. If that is so, do you not have a heavy burden of justification?" Every premise of that question was a misperception. The involvement of the federal government in the health-care market is not unprecedented; it dates back nearly fifty years, to the passage of Medicare and Medicaid. The forty million uninsured Americans whose chances for coverage are riding on the outcome of the case are already entered "into commerce," because others are likely to pay their health-care costs.

Kennedy's last point, about the "heavy burden" on the government to defend the law, was correct--in 1935. That was when the Supreme Court, in deciding Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States--a case involving the regulation of the sale of sick chickens--struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act, a principal domestic priority of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the ground that it violated the Commerce Clause. Two years later, however, the Court executed its famous "switch in time that saved the Nine" and began upholding the reforms of the New Deal. The Justices came to recognize that national economic problems require national solutions, and they deferred to Congress, usually unanimously, to provide those solutions, under the Commerce Clause.

For example, the Justices had no trouble upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which used the clause to mandate the integration of hotels and restaurants. "It may be argued that Congress could have pursued other methods to eliminate the obstructions it found in interstate commerce caused by racial discrimination," Justice Tom C. Clark wrote, for his unanimous brethren. "But this is a matter of policy that rests entirely with the Congress, not with the courts. How obstructions in commerce may be removed--what means are to be employed--is within the sound and exclusive discretion of the Congress." In other words, Justice Kennedy had it backward. The "heavy burden" is not on the defenders of the law but on its challengers. Acts of Congress, like the health-care law, are presumed to be constitutional, and it is--or should be--a grave and unusual step for unelected, unaccountable, life-tenured judges to overrule the work of the democratically elected branches of government.

Last week, however, the conservative Justices were showing no deference to Congress, especially on economic matters. The questions from the quartet of Kennedy, John G. Roberts, Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., amounted to a catalogue of complaints about the Affordable Care Act. (Clarence Thomas, their silent ally, presumably was with them in spirit. …

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