Vacuous Deference and the Affordable Care Act

28 06 2012

During oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act, Justices asked the challengers of the bill if they wanted to see a return to the “Lochner era.” The bill’s challengers strenuously denied this was their aim. The term refers to the era of Supreme Court jurisprudence after the turn of the last century, when the Court repeatedly struck down state statutes regulating workers hours, overtime pay, child labor, and the like, on the grounds that they violate a nebulous “freedom of contract.” The name refers to the case Lochner v. New York, a case striking down a New York statute setting wages and conditions for bakers and confectioners. The Lochner era was characterized close judicial scrutiny of legislatures’ determination of social ills and the best means to address them. In other words, the Justices were concerned that striking down the ACA would set a precedent of lack of judicial deference to legislatures’ political judgment.

I was of the belief that Chief Justice Roberts would not vote to strike down the minimum coverage requirement of the Act as a whole, for two reasons: first, because invalidate a law so hotly debated, that resulted from intense negotiation between massive political and economic interests (not just between parties) in an election year, would forever tarnish his name and his Court as the politicized Supreme Court. Second, because as the Chief Justice, he could by voting with the upholding majority, author the opinion and narrowly limit the holding. These two dynamics certainly won out when weighed against the potential risks and rewards of creating a nebulous line between “activity/inactivity” that the dissent encourages and striking down the law.

Indeed, Justice Roberts hewed to some basic canons in Supreme Court jurisprudence: don’t judge a statute as policy; defer to the legislature’s judgment as to findings of facts and potential remedies; and, if a statutory provision can be considered constitutional in any way, it should stand. In other words, be deferential to the legislature. That deference cuts both ways.

He got the best of both worlds: he upheld the statute, avoiding the firestorm that would have resulted from a murky decision, but also reinforced the Court’s traditional deference to the legislature particularly on its use of the taxing power. Reading the opinion, Roberts’ elan and cunning shines through. Scholars are going to be all over this bad boy for the next decade.

Ultimately, the Court avoided the more exacting “Lochner deference” standard for economic legislation that requires a legislature to prove that their statute address an actual problem, and that the means they’ve chosen will certainly achieve those ends.

That’s good news. The legislature is the most frequently elected body of government, thus the most accountable; and it is the largest, thus most representative. It should be afforded deference in all but a handful of narrow categories of legislation.

It has also become hopelessly manipulated by corporate and cash influence, such that elections are perennially losing efficacy, and lobbyist power neuters what change is made at the ballot box–for an example, look at the Affordable Care Act itself.

Americans largely supported the public option, but it was a non-starter not for electoral reasons but because of the power of a handful of very wealthy and influential lobbies, particularly AHIP, the insurance trade association that made it clear that the public option was unacceptable to them.

In a post-Citizens United electoral landscape, expanding deference to the legislature is not necessarily a victory for progressives. It indicates very little risk for elites. In the Lochner era, the Court was applying minimal deference as a reaction to populist legislation fighting the excesses of capital. In the current era, applying generous deference just enables capital’s excess as it is expressed through the legislature. Deference to the legislature is in other words a neutral value.

What’s more, Justice Roberts’ narrow holding–that the minimum coverage requirement was constitutional as a taxing-and-spending power, not a commerce clause power–makes the jurisprudential effect of the decision even less problematic for the political right. Taxation is always less-than-popular. In the big-cash-as-speech era, expansive deference to Congress’ power to impose and spend new taxes is judicial deference to political poison.

Ultimately, the Court held that the minimum coverage requirement or individual mandate is constitutional not under the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce “among the several States” (Art I, Sec. 8), but because it operates like a tax. If Congress wants to tax you for not having health insurance, a risk-taking behavior that potentially creates costs for others, they can do that. What they cannot do, Roberts says, is use the Commerce clause to induce people to buy a product. The Court held this explicitly.

The government briefed an alternative to their Commerce Clause argument, that the mandate was constitutional under Congress’ explicit power to lay and collect taxes for the public welfare. It was this alternative argument that Roberts accepted. Roberts is winning praise from progressive and moderate commentators for his deference to the political judgment of legislators–but the fact that he accepted this alternative argument means that that deference is qualified. The Commerce Clause is not a near-boundless grant of power for Congress to regulate social and economic relations.

Whether the case was “rightly decided” is not particularly interesting. The act of judicial restraint in not invalidating a statute because it is clumsy was appropriate. As a piece of precedent, the holding that the Commerce Clause does not justify consumer mandates is fairly politically neutral; recall that the individual mandate was originally a conservative idea. The precedent of deference shown to Congress’ taxing-and-spending power tracks with historical treatment of Congress’ taxing-and-spending power (see for example South Dakota v. Dole) and, in the big-money era of electoral wheel-spinning for progressives, such deference doesn’t promise anything new.

On the ramifications of the policy actually moving forward, more to come.


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