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Obama and Roberts
Upholding ACA, laying groundwork to strike down New Deal

On a happy day for many of us, where the Affordable Care Act was upheld in a 5-4 decision (PDF) authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, there is a dark cloud attached. The Chief Justice accepted the federal government's argument that Congress had exercised its taxing power in enacting the mandate. But rather than being a judicial minimalist and deciding only those constitutional questions that must be decided, the Roberts Court bulled on to decide issues that need not have been addressed—whether the mandate exceeded the Congress' Commerce and Necessary and Proper power.

And the Roberts opinion on the scope of the national government's power to address national problems is a shot across the bow to the Supreme Court's New Deal jurisprudence that underpins our modern national government.

(Continue reading below the fold)

Intro

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In the early 20th century, this Court regularly struck down economic regulation enacted by the peoples’ representatives in both the States and the Federal Government. [...]THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s Commerce Clause opinion [...] bear[s] a disquieting resemblance to those long-overruled decisions. Ultimately, the Court upholds the individual mandate as a proper exercise of Congress’ power to tax and spend“ for the . . . general Welfare of the United States.” [...] I concur in that determination, which makes THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s Commerce Clause essay all the more puzzling. Why should THE CHIEF JUSTICE strive so mightily to hem in Congress’ capacity to meet the new problems arising constantly in our ever developing modern economy? I find no satisfying response to that question in his opinion.12 [Emphasis supplied.] —Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Sadly, the five conservatives of the Roberts Court have embraced the Constitution in Exile. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, joined by the four other conservative justices, that:
As our jurisprudence under the Necessary and ProperClause has developed, we have been very deferential to Congress’s determination that a regulation is “necessary.”We have thus upheld laws that are “‘convenient, or useful’ or ‘conducive’ to the authority’s ‘beneficial exercise.’” Comstock, 560 U. S., at _ (slip op., at 5) (quoting McCulloch, supra, at 413, 418). But we have also carried out our responsibility to declare unconstitutional those laws that undermine the structure of government established by the Constitution. Such laws, which are not “consist[ent] withthe letter and spirit of the constitution,” McCulloch, supra, at 421, are not “proper [means] for carrying into Execution” Congress’s enumerated powers. Rather, they are, “in the words of The Federalist, ‘merely acts of usurpation’ which ‘deserve to be treated as such.’” Printz v. United States, 521 U. S. 898, 924 (1997) (alterations omitted) (quoting The Federalist No. 33, at 204 (A. Hamilton)); see also New York, 505 U. S., at 177; Comstock, supra, at _ (slip op., at 5) (KENNEDY, J., concurring in judgment) (“It is of fundamental importance to consider whether essential attributes of state sovereignty are compromised by the assertion of federal power under the Necessary and Proper Clause . . .”).

Applying these principles, the individual mandate cannot be sustained under the Necessary and Proper Clause as an essential component of the insurance reforms. Each of our prior cases upholding laws under that Clause involved exercises of authority derivative of, and in service to, a granted power. For example, we have upheld provisions permitting continued confinement of those already in federal custody when they could not be safely released, Comstock, supra, at _ (slip op., at 1–2); criminalizing bribes involving organizations receiving federal funds, Sabri v. United States, 541 U. S. 600, 602, 605 (2004); and tolling state statutes of limitations while cases are pending in federal court, Jinks v. Richland County, 538 U. S. 456, 459, 462 (2003). The individual mandate, by contrast, vests Congress with the extraordinary ability to create the necessary predicate to the exercise of an enumerated power.

This is wholesale nonsense, both as law and fact. The mandate was not enacted in order to create activity that can be regulated. It was enacted, wisely or not, to make more effective the proper exercise of the Commerce power to regulate the health care and health insurance markets. It was a classic exercise of the Congress' Necessary and Proper power. The Roberts five claim that "such a conception of the Necessary and Proper Clause would work a substantial expansion of federal authority." Quite the opposite. This view constitutes a substantial contraction of federal authority. It strikes at our conception of our federal government and the New Deal.

In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg explains what is wrong with what the Roberts five are arguing:

[W]e owe a large measure of respect to Congress when it frames and enacts economic and social legislation.See Raich, 545 U. S., at 17. See also Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation v. R. A. Gray & Co., 467 U. S. 717, 729 (1984) (“[S]trong deference [is] accorded legislation in the field of national economic policy.”); Hodel v. Indiana, 452 U. S. 314, 326 (1981) (“This [C]ourt will certainly not substitute its judgment for that of Congress unless the relation of the subject to interstate commerce and its effect upon it are clearly non-existent.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). When appraising such legislation, we ask only (1) whether Congress had a “rational basis” for concluding that the regulated activity substantially affects interstate commerce, and (2) whether there is a “reasonable connection between the regulatory means selected and the asserted ends.” Id., at 323–324. See also Raich, 545 U. S., at 22; Lopez, 514 U. S., at 557; Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining & Reclamation Assn., Inc., 452 U. S. 264, 277 (1981); Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U. S. 294, 303 (1964); Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U. S. 241, 258 (1964); United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U. S. 144, 152–153 (1938). In answering these questions, we presume the statute under review is constitutional and may strike it down only on a “plain showing”that Congress acted irrationally. United States v. Morrison, 529 U. S. 598, 607 (2000).

Straightforward application of these principles would require the Court to hold that the minimum coverage provision is proper Commerce Clause legislation. Beyond dispute, Congress had a rational basis for concluding that the uninsured, as a class, substantially affect interstate commerce. Those without insurance consume billions of dollars of health-care products and services each year. See supra, at 5. Those goods are produced, sold, and delivered largely by national and regional companies who routinely transact business across state lines. The uninsured also cross state lines to receive care. Some have medical emergencies while away from home. Others, when sick, go to a neighboring State that provides better care for those who have not prepaid for care.[...]

Rather than evaluating the constitutionality of the minimum coverage provision in the manner established by our precedents, THE CHIEF JUSTICE relies on a newly minted constitutional doctrine. The commerce power does not, THE CHIEF JUSTICE announces, permit Congress to “compe[l] individuals to become active in commerce by purchasing a product.” Ante, at 20 (emphasis deleted).

THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s novel constraint on Congress’ commerce power gains no force from our precedent and for that reason alone warrants disapprobation.

With regard to the Necessary and Proper power, Justice Ginsburg wrote (joined by the 3 other moderate Justices):
For the reasons explained above, the minimum coverage provision is valid Commerce Clause legislation. See supra, Part II. When viewed as a component of the entire ACA, the provision’s constitutionality becomes even plainer.

The Necessary and Proper Clause “empowers Congress to enact laws in effectuation of its [commerce] powe[r] that are not within its authority to enact in isolation.” Raich, 545 U. S., at 39 (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment). Hence, “[a] complex regulatory program . . . can survive a Commerce Clause challenge without a showing that every single facet of the program is independently and directly related to a valid congressional goal.” Indiana, 452 U. S., at 329, n. 17. “It is enough that the challenged provisions are an integral part of the regulatory program and that the regulatory scheme when considered as a whole satisfies this test.” Ibid. (collecting cases). See also Raich, 545 U. S., at 24–25 (A challenged statutory provision fits within Congress’ commerce authority if it is an “essential par[t] of a larger regulation of economic activity,”such that, in the absence of the provision, “the regulatory scheme could be undercut.” (quoting Lopez, 514 U. S., at 561)); Raich, 545 U. S., at 37 (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment) (“Congress may regulate even noneconomic local activity if that regulation is a necessary part of a more general regulation of interstate commerce. The relevant question is simply whether the means chosen are ‘reasonably adapted’ to the attainment of a legitimate end under the commerce power.” (citation omitted)).

Remarkably, the Roberts five cited federalism concerns in denying the Congress its long established Commerce and Necessary and Proper power. As Justice Ginsburg notes, the chief justice makes his constitutional argument out of whole cloth:
THE CHIEF JUSTICE urges, because the command “undermine[s] the structure of government established by the Constitution.” Ante, at 28. If long on hetoric, THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s argument is short on substance. THE CHIEF JUSTICE cites only two cases in which this Court concluded that a federal statute impermissibly transgressed the Constitution’s boundary between state and federal authority: Printz v. United States, 521 U. S. 898 (1997), and New York v. United States, 505 U. S. 144 (1992). See ante, at 29. The statutes at issue in both cases, however, compelled state officials to act on the Federal Government’s behalf. 521 U. S., at 925–933 (holding unconstitutional a statute obligating state law enforcement officers to implement a federal gun-control law); New York, 505 U. S., at 176–177 (striking down a statute requiring state legislators to pass regulations pursuant to Congress’ instructions). “[Federal] laws conscripting state officers,” the Court reasoned, “violate state sovereignty and are thus not in accord with the Constitution.” Printz, 521 U. S., at 925, 935; New York, 505 U. S., at 176.

The minimum coverage provision, in contrast, acts “directly upon individuals, without employing the States as intermediaries.” New York, 505 U. S., at 164. The provision is thus entirely consistent with the Constitution’s design. See Printz, 521 U. S., at 920 (“[T]he Framers explicitly chose a Constitution that confers upon Congress the power to regulate individuals, not States.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

Lacking case law support for his holding, THE CHIEF JUSTICE nevertheless declares the minimum coverage provision not “proper” because it is less “narrow in scope” than other laws this Court has upheld under the Necessary and Proper Clause. Ante, at 29 (citing United States v. Comstock, 560 U. S. _ (2010); Sabri v. United States, 541 U. S. 600 (2004); Jinks v. Richland County, 538 U. S. 456 (2003)). THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s reliance on cases in which this Court has affirmed Congress’ “broad authority to enact federal legislation” under the Necessary and Proper Clause, Comstock, 560 U. S., at _ (slip op., at 5), is underwhelming.

Nor does THE CHIEF JUSTICE pause to explain why the power to direct either the purchase of health insurance or, alternatively, the payment of a penalty collectible as a tax is more far-reaching than other implied powers this Court has found meet under the Necessary and Proper Clause.These powers include the power to enact criminal laws, see, e.g., United States v. Fox, 95 U. S. 670, 672 (1878); the power to imprison, including civil imprisonment, see, e.g., Comstock, 560 U. S., at _ (slip op., at 1); and the power to create a national bank, see McCulloch, 4 Wheat., at 425. See also Jinks, 538 U. S., at 463 (affirming Congress’ power to alter the way a state law is applied in state court, where the alteration “promotes fair and efficient operation of the federal courts”).10

In failing to explain why the individual mandate threatens our constitutional order, THE CHIEF JUSTICE disserves future courts. How is a judge to decide, when ruling on the constitutionality of a federal statute, whether Congress employed an “independent power,” ante, at 28, or merely a “derivative” one, ante, at 29. Whether the power used is “substantive,” ante, at 30, or just “incidental,” ante, at 29? The instruction THE CHIEF JUSTICE, in effect, provides lower courts: You will know it when you see it.

Justice Ginsburg is much too sanguine here. The Roberts five will tell them in later cases. The undoing of the New Deal must begin somewhere. This is not the end of the Roberts five assault on the New Deal. It is only the beginning. Justice Ginsburg writes:
In the early 20th century, this Court regularly struck down economic regulation enacted by the peoples’ representatives in both the States and the Federal Government. See, e.g., Carter Coal Co., 298 U. S., at 303–304, 309–310; Dagenhart, 247 U. S., at 276–277; Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45, 64 (1905).

THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s Commerce Clause opinion, and even more so the joint dissenters’ reasoning, see post, at 4–16, bear a disquieting resemblance to those long-overruled decisions. Ultimately, the Court upholds the individual mandate as a proper exercise of Congress’ power to tax and spend“ for the . . . general Welfare of the United States.” Art. I, §8, cl. 1; ante, at 43–44. I concur in that determination, which makes THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s Commerce Clause essay all the more puzzling. Why should THE CHIEF JUSTICE strive so mightily to hem in Congress’ capacity to meet the new problems arising constantly in our ever developing modern economy? I find no satisfying response to that question in his opinion.12 [Emphasis supplied.[

There is no satisfying response, but there is an obvious one—the Roberts five seek to dismantle the New Deal jurisprudence. With no need to even opine on the Commerce and Necessary and Proper question, Chief Justice Roberts has written an unfathomable opinion whose motive can only be the laying of groundwork—the groundwork to undo the New Deal.

Now, more than ever, we see the Roberts five agenda. We must reelect President Obama in order to stop it.

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