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Health Care Decision or Court Review of Congressional Power?

In the major 2012 health care decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of sweeping federal healthcare legislation captioned as the “Affordable Care Act”.  The decision sheds more light on how government claims a right of power than about heath care.

US Supreme Court Approves Obamacare on Congressional Taxing Authority
By RambergMedialImages on Flickr

Most observers expected the court to base its final determination on the concept of federalism.  The framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned federal government with limited specified powers, reserving all other powers to the states.  So, under the commerce clause, the issue was whether or not Congress could use its power to require everyone to buy health insurance.  

The commerce clause allows Congress to regulate commerce and activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.  That power has been held to authorize federal regulation of things like what farmers grow and extortion by loan sharks.  These are the court’s examples, not mine.  Simply put, the court fell one vote short of upholding the law on that basis.

But, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the court is reluctant to invalidate acts of Congress.  “Proper respect for a co-ordinate branch of the government” means that the Supreme Court will strike down laws only with clear demonstration of unconstitutionality.

The proposed health care law failed to meet the court’s standards for allowable power of the federal government under the concept of limited power.  But, the analysis didn’t end there.

The law requires most people to have health insurance through an employer or to buy it on their own by 2014.  The law itself never uses the word “tax”.  It says those who fail to comply with the mandate must pay a “shared responsibility payment” or a “penalty” to the Fed­eral Government.  But, whatever Congress called it, violators pay the Internal Revenue Service, facing the same collection and enforcement powers otherwise exercised by the IRS.  So, the court found the law imposes a tax.

The Supreme Court noted that one of Congress’ many powers is to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises.”  This, the court found, gives the Federal Government considerable influence even in areas where it cannot directly regulate.”  Be­cause the Constitution permits such a tax, “it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”

Although upholding the law, Chief Justice Roberts wrote this: 

“we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments.  Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them.  It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”

The name of the case, the “case caption” as attorneys refer to it is “National Federation of Independent Business, et. al, v. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et. al.”  The petitioners, independent business, lost.  The government won.

© 2012 Eagle Tribune Corporation.  First appeared in Derry News column “About the Law”.


2 thoughts on “Health Care Decision or Court Review of Congressional Power?”

  1. I find it interesting that as a result of this decision individuals are forced to either purchase a product sold by for profit corporations or pay a penalty tax. Who really benefits from this? If health insurance were affordable it may not seem to be such a corrupt law. But given the high cost and low benefit that many policies provide it is simply lining the pockets of big business at the taxpayers expense once again. When is the government going to stop working for corporate america and start working for the people? Chief Justice Roberts comment pretty much said it all. We put the people in power. The real question is how to get a real representative of the 99% into power. The 1% control the money and therefore control the power. I could go on and on but I have to go to work to pay corporate America for my health insurance that is making me sick!

  2. And I can tell you from personal experience that the Medicaid system is garbage. Having relied on it, rather than pay out of pocket for health care, I see that the government should stay 100% out of health care. There are more than enough Doctors who are willing to work for less many; they do so on their own without the carrot and stick method that the Obama administration is using with the ACA.
    Once insurance companies drive enough doctors out of business (move to Canada or Europe?) and increase their profits, you will see the end result: Socialized medicine that doesn’t help the people who need it. But you’re stuck paying the insurance company or the IRS for that ‘privilege’.

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Attorney Myers is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, and New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers offer a broad range of legal services in personal injury cases in Massachusetts (MA) and New Hampshire (NH) areas.

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