How John Roberts upheld health-care law while limiting congressional power (+video)
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was with the majority on both sides of the ruling on the health-care reform law, upholding the law while finding that Congress had overstepped its authority.
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For supporters of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the entire law survived (by a slim 5-to-4 vote) what has been a bruising election-year debate over the statute’s legality and propriety.
It is a resounding victory for Mr. Obama, affirming the constitutionality of the signature legislative achievement of his tenure in the White House.
But Thursday’s ruling also included an important victory for Republicans and other critics of the health-care reform law, who complained that Congress, in ordering every American to buy a government-approved level of health insurance or pay a penalty, had overstepped its authority under the Commerce Clause.
The high court sided 5 to 4 with that position.
At the center of this Solomon-like judicial maneuver was Chief Justice John Roberts, whose fancy footwork provided the decisive fifth vote on both sides of the dispute.
In the end, Chief Justice Roberts declared that even though Congress could not enact the Affordable Care Act (ACA) under the Commerce Clause, it nonetheless retained the power to do so under its authority to raise and collect taxes.
“The court today holds that our Constitution protects us from federal regulation under the Commerce Clause so long as we abstain from the regulated activity,” he wrote. “But from its creation, the Constitution has made no such promise with respect to taxes.”
In effect, Roberts and four members of the court’s liberal wing ruled that what Congress called a “penalty” in the ACA was really a “tax.”
The distinction is huge. It means that Congress intended the payment as an incentive for Americans to buy health insurance, not as punishment for those who failed to obey the federal command.
While Congress had never before tried to use its Commerce Clause power to compel Americans to buy a product they did not wish to purchase, there is nothing new about Congress using taxes or tax credits to encourage Americans to buy something they may not want.
“Sustaining the mandate as a tax depends only on whether Congress has properly exercised its taxing power to encourage purchasing health insurance, not whether it can,” Roberts wrote.
“Upholding the individual mandate under the Taxing Clause thus does not recognize any new federal power,” he said.
Power was the whole point of the legal challenge to the health-care reform law.
Critics had warned that the so-called individual mandate, if upheld, would grant limitless authority to the national government to regulate every aspect of American life. There was even talk of a dreaded broccoli mandate.
Roberts answered that concern by declaring the Commerce Clause authorized the regulation of economic activities but did not reach inactivity – like the decision not to buy health insurance.