Words Still Matter, Even in the Supreme Court

Court Prepares to Review Affordable Care Act’s Constitutionality

The Supreme Court will uphold the Affordable Care Act if the text of the Constitution means anything, writes Ian Millhiser.

Judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative, upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, saying that opponents of the act could not find "real support" against it in either the text of the Constitution or Supreme Court precedent. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative, upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, saying that opponents of the act could not find "real support" against it in either the text of the Constitution or Supreme Court precedent. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The most powerful line in conservative Judge Laurence Silberman’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act last week is a blunt statement that the law’s opponents “cannot find real support” for their arguments “in either the text of the Constitution or Supreme Court precedent.”

Now that the Supreme Court has agreed to take up this case later this year, Silberman’s words are a stern reminder that the text of the Constitution must guide judges’ decisions, especially in politically charged cases, and that Silberman’s fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court must ignore the temptation to place politics over fidelity to the Constitution by striking down the Affordable Care Act.

There can be no question that Silberman is right about what the Constitution has to say about this law. The federal government’s power is not unlimited—the Constitution gives Congress a laundry list of “enumerated powers,” and Congress cannot stray beyond this list—but its authority is quite sweeping when it regulates nationwide commercial markets such as the market for health care services. In the Constitution’s words, Congress may “regulate commerce . . . among the several states.”

The plaintiffs’ primary challenge to the Affordable Care Act is to the provision requiring most Americans to either carry health insurance or pay slightly more income taxes. In their vision of the Constitution, this provision runs afoul of some unwritten rule against being told what to do. The federal government can regulate how people go about the business they are already engaged in, under this narrow vision, but it is utterly powerless to push people to engage in commerce they would prefer to avoid.

There are many, many problems with this theory of the Constitution. But Silberman’s rebuttal of it is both the most simple and the most elegant response to the plaintiffs’ entirely fabricated legal theory. The Constitution says nothing suggesting that people can immunize themselves from the law simply by remaining passive. It simply provides that the United States may regulate commerce among the several states.

Modern judges do not need to speculate what the founding generation understood these words to mean when they were written into the text of the Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall—himself one of the ratifiers of the Constitution—told us what they mean in the 1824 case of Gibbons v. Ogden. Marshall wrote that there is “no sort of trade” that the words “regulate Commerce” do not apply to. He said that the power to “regulate” something “implies in its nature full power over the thing to be regulated.” And he told us that Congress’s power to regulate commerce “among the several states” applies to all trade that “concern[s] more states than one.”

So when Congress passes a nationwide law regulating the entire national health care market, there is simply no question that the law is constitutional. The law regulates a form of trade—trade for health services—and it regulates a health services market that is both pervasive and nationwide. The Affordable Care Act cases are some of the easiest cases to cross the Supreme Court’s bench in a generation, and it is nothing less than shocking that a handful of judges have struck the law down.

Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of judges to review the law have upheld it. Of the four federal appeals courts to consider the Affordable Care Act, only one voted to strike it. That one outlier decision was grounded on a false fear that if the courts were to uphold health reform, it would somehow eliminate all of the existing limits on congressional authority. If Congress is allowed to regulate health care today, the law’s opponents argue, tomorrow they will force everyone to buy broccoli.

Make no mistake: This concern is misguided, and it has no basis in the Supreme Court’s precedents. In its 1995 decision in United States v. Lopez, the Supreme Court explained that the power to regulate “commerce” includes sweeping authority over the nation’s economy, but Congress’s authority over noneconomic matters is far more limited. Thus a wide range of noneconomic regulation—including federal laws governing personal and sexual morality or even a federal ban on assault, rape, or murder—clearly exceed Congress’s enumerated powers. Sweeping regulation of the national health care market, by contrast, fits comfortably within the Constitution’s text.

Because the text of the Constitution clearly and obviously supports the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court has an unambiguous duty to uphold it. Judges are not like members of Congress. They are unelected, and they serve for life. As such, they cannot be held accountable to the people through fear of a lost election and can only be checked by their loyalty to our written Constitution. If the federal judiciary has the power to ignore the text of the Constitution then there is literally nothing that they cannot do.

Indeed, if the justices strike down the Affordable Care Act, there is nothing preventing them from forcing every American to buy broccoli.

Ian Millhiser is a Policy Analyst at American Progress and the Editor of the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s ThinkProgress Justice.

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Ian Millhiser

Senior Fellow