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Supreme Court agrees to settle fight over Obama health-care law

The Obama health-care law hangs in the balance, as the Supreme Court opts to hear challenges to its constitutionality. But the case is also about the power of Congress and the role of Supreme Court precedent.

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No Republican member of the House or Senate voted for the ACA.

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Obama signed the reform measure into law in March 2010. It sparked immediate legal action. Twenty-six states, a church-run college, an association of small businesses, a public-interest law group, and a handful of citizens asked the federal courts to declare the ACA unconstitutional. 

So far, four US appeals courts have ruled on the issue. Three have upheld the law; one, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, struck it down.

The legal dispute begins with 12 words enshrined in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution: “Congress shall have power … to regulate commerce … among the several states.”

Congress has used this authority to pass a wide range of federal laws involving interstate commerce and economic activities affecting the states. The Supreme Court has rarely challenged efforts to broadly construe congressional authority under the Constitution’s commerce clause.

But problems have arisen whenever the court has tried to identify the boundaries of this federal commerce authority.

The Constitution was written in part to constrain the national government within enumerated powers. For example, the 10th Amendment notes that the “powers not delegated to the [federal government] by the Constitution … are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

That means the national government has no power to act beyond the role assigned it under the Constitution. In contrast, the states retain the broadest powers – including a general police power that would allow a state government unquestionably to order a statewide version of the ACA.

This is the situation in Massachusetts, where most people have been required to buy health insurance since 2007.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether federal power is broad enough to permit Congress to order a nationwide individual mandate.

Important 'commerce clause' cases of yore

To answer that question, the court must look back through history at earlier Supreme Court decisions that have defined the reach of federal power under the commerce clause. Those cases involve wheat, marijuana, guns near schools, and violence against women.

The wheat case examined whether the federal government could enforce a quota on wheat production against wheat grown on a farm for consumption on that farm. The farmer argued that because his wheat was not entering interstate commerce, he should be able to produce wheat on his own land free of federal control. The high court disagreed, ruling in 1942 that the aggregate effect of home-grown wheat undercut the federal quota because it reduced the amount of wheat the farmer would otherwise buy on the interstate market to satisfy on-farm consumption.

The marijuana case examined whether federal narcotics laws could be enforced against users of home-grown medical marijuana in California, where the state had legalized the practice. The court upheld the federal law because the medical use of marijuana – even entirely intrastate growing and use at one’s home – would undermine the comprehensive drug enforcement mechanism of the federal government.

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