Archive for the 'Commerce Clause' Category

After the election: What now?

Posted by on Nov 09 2012 | Commerce Clause, congress, Constitutional Amendments, Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, Growth of Government, Health Care, health control law, obama, obamacare, Presidency, Tenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution, U.S. Constitution

The November 6 election outcome has many friends of the Constitution dispirited. As so often before, they hoped that by defeating federal candidates contemptuous of constitutional limits and replacing them with others, they could help restore our Constitution.

Obviously, that decades-long strategy has failed—spectacularly.

They also have long hoped that by appointing the right people to the U.S. Supreme Court, they could win case decisions restoring constitutional limits. But after 40 years, that campaign has produced only indifferent results. Actually, worse than indifferent: When, through the 2010 Obamacare law, federal politicians overreached further than they ever had before—by imposing a mandate ordering almost everyone in the country to buy a commercial product—the Court didn’t even hold the much-weakened line. Rather, the Court upheld the mandate.

The fundamental fallacy behind the federally-centered strategy lies in assuming federal politicians and federal judges will somehow restore limits on federal power. That is implausible as an abstract proposition. And practical experience over many decades also shows that strategy to be a failure.

There are several reasons for the failure of the federal election strategy. First, for this approach to work, you have to elect a majority—actually a super-majority (at least 60 in the Senate)—of constitutionalists to Congress. You also have to elect a person of similar views to the presidency. And you have to do this so they are all in office at the same time.

Second, constitutionalists face inherent handicaps running for federal office: Most are by nature non-political, and therefore don’t make good or persistent politicians. Their views prevent them from promising farmers more subsidies, seniors more health care, or students more loans. And those views also discourage campaign contributions.

Third, even when constitutionalists do achieve federal office, a critical proportion of them forget or weaken their commitments amid the enticements of Washington, D.C. and the fleshpots of power.

The Founders foresaw this sort of thing. That’s why they inserted in the Constitution’s Article V language allowing the states to respond to federal abuse by amending the document. At the behest of 2/3 of the states, all convene together to propose constitutional amendments, which 3/4 may ratify.

This provision was designed explicitly to enable the states to bypass federal politicians.

Incredibly, however, the convention method of proposing amendments has never been used. This largely explains why our governmental system is so unbalanced today.

Year after year, well-meaning people have rejected the convention approach in the vain hope that federal elections are the answer. In the light of Tuesday’s results, they need to re-assess. This reassessment is now more urgent than ever, because even more than the Constitution is at stake. So also is our national solvency.

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The Bar Review version of NFIB v. Sebelius

Posted by on Jul 10 2012 | Commerce Clause, Constitutional Law, Individual Mandate, Originalism, supreme court, Taxing and Spending Clause

Over at Scotusblog, I present the legal rules of NFIB v. Sebelius, as they might appear in a bar review outline, or in a student study aid for a Constitutional Law I class.

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Post-argument debate on the constitutionality of Obamacare

Posted by on Apr 17 2012 | Commerce Clause, Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, federalism, Health Care, Individual Mandate, Necessary and Proper, Taxing and Spending Clause

Held at Denver University, Sturm College of Law, on April 11. Debaters were University of Colorado Prof. Scott Moss and me. Moderator is DU Prof. Ann Scales. WMV, via ftp.

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Nearing the end of the search for the non-existent limiting principles

Posted by on Mar 29 2012 | Commerce Clause, Constitutional Law, federalism, Fifth Amendment, Growth of Government, guns, Health Care, Individual Mandate, Necessary and Proper, New Class, Regulation, supreme court, Taxes, Uncategorized

With the Supreme Court probably voting on the constitutionality of Obamacare (a term the President proudly embraces) on Friday, the health control law’s academic friends are diligently attempting to do what the entire United States Department of Justice could not do after two years of litigation: articulate plausible limiting principles for the individual mandate. Over at Balkinization, Neil Siegel offers Five Limiting Principles. They are:

1. The Necessary and Proper Clause. “Unlike other purchase mandates, including every hypothetical at oral argument on Tuesday, the minimum coverage provision prevents the unraveling of a market that Congress has clear authority to regulate.” This is no limitation at all. Under modern doctrine, Congress has the authority to regulate almost every market. If Congress enacts regulations that are extremely harmful to that market, such as imposing price controls (a/k/a “community rating”) or requiring sellers to sell products at far below cost to some customers (e.g., “guaranteed issue”) then the market will probably “unravel” (that is, the companies will lose so much money that they go out of business). So to prevent the companies from being destroyed, Congress forces other consumers to buy products from those companies at vastly excessive prices (e.g., $5,000 for an individual policy for a health 35-year-old whose actuarial expenditures for health care of all sorts during a year is $845).

So Siegel’s argument is really an anti-limiting principle: if Congress imposes ruinous price controls on  a market, to help favored consumers, then Congress can try to save the market’s producers by mandating that disfavored consumers buy overpriced products from those producers.

2. The Commerce Clause. “The minimum coverage provision addresses economic problems, not merely social problems that do not involve markets.” This is true, and is, as Siegel points out, a distinction from Lopez (carrying guns) and Morrison (gender-related violence). However, it’s pretty clear under long-established doctrine that the Commerce power can be used to address “social problems that do not involve markets.” E.g.Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470 (1917) (Congress can use the interstate commerce power to criminalize interstate travel by people intending to engage in non-commercial extra-marital sex); Champion v. Ames, 188 U.S. 321 (1903) (“What clause can be cited which, in any degree, countenances the suggestion that one may, of right, carry or cause to be carried from one state to another that which will harm the public morals?”). Personally, I thought that Chief Justice Fuller’s dissent in Champion had the better argument, but Champion and its progeny are well-established precedents, so proposed limiting principle number two does not work, unless we overrule a century of precedent.

Besides that, #2 does not work for the same reason that #1 does not work. If Congress forced food producers to sell products to some consumers at far below cost, then Congress could (for economic, not social/moral motives) force other consumers to buy overpriced food, so that the producers do not go bankrupt. Imagine that instead of the Food Stamp program (general tax revenue given to 1/6 of the U.S. population to help them buy food), Congress forced grocery stores to sell food to poor people at far below cost. And instead of raising taxes in order to give money to the grocery stores to make up for their losses on the coerced sales, Congress instead forced other consumers to spend thousands of dollars on food from those same stores, which would be sold to those consumers at far above its free market price.

If there’s a limiting principle, the only one seems to be that in order to mandate the purchase of a product, Congress must also inflict some other harm on the producers of the product, which the coerced purchases will ameliorate.

3. “Collective action failures and interstate externalities impede the ability of the states to guarantee access to health insurance, prevent adverse selection, and prevent cost shifting by acting on their own. Insurers operate in multiple states and have fled from states that guarantee access to states that do not.” This is really a policy argument for Obamacare. Hypothesizing that it’s a good policy argument, it’s not a limiting principle. That the advocates of Obamacare think that the policy arguments for their mandate is better than the policy arguments for other mandates does not provide courts with a limiting principle of law.

Moreover, the policy argument is wrong. It’s true that some insurance companies stop operating in states where the law forces them to sell insurance to legislatively-favored purchasers at far below the actuarial cost of the insurance, with the  legislature failing to compensate the companies for the enormous resulting losses. If you make it difficult for companies to operate profitably in your state, then they will eventually stop operating in your state. It’s not a collective action problem; it’s just a problem of several states enacting laws that prevent companies from covering their costs. Any state with guaranteed issue and other price controls can solve the problem immediately by simply using tax revenues pay compensation for the subsidy which the state law forces the insurance companies to provide to certain consumers.

Obamacare is a particularly weak case in which to argue that the federal government is riding the rescue of the states to solve a collective action problem. For the first time in American history, a majority of the States are suing to ask that a federal law be declared unconstitutional. These states are taking collective action to stop the federal government from imposing a problem on them.

4. The Tax Power. “[T]he minimum coverage provision respects the limits on the tax power. The difference between a tax and a penalty is the difference between the minimum coverage provision and a required payment of say, $10,000 that has a scienter requirement and increases with each month that an individual remains uninsured. Unlike the minimum coverage provision, such an exaction would be so coercive that it would raise little or no revenue. It would thus be beyond the scope of the tax power.”

Let’s put aside the fact that, however ingenious the progressive professoriate’s  tax arguments have been, the chances that the individual mandate is going to be upheld under the tax power appear to be at most 1% greater than the chance the Buddy Roemer will be the next President of the United States.

Presuming that Siegel’s tax justification for the individual mandate is valid, it is an anti-limiting principle. Congress can indeed mandate eating hamburgers, smoking, not smoking, not eating hamburgers, or anything else Congress wants to mandate, as long as Congress sets the “tax” at level that will raise a moderate amount of revenue, does not include a scienter requirement, and does not make the “tax” increase each month that the individual refuses to do what Congress mandates.

5. Liberty. “The minimum coverage provision does not violate any individual rights, including bodily integrity and substantive due process more generally. These rights would be violated by a mandate to eat broccoli or exercise a certain amount.” Pointing to the existence of the Bill of Rights is not an example of a limiting principle for an enumerated federal power. The Constitution does not say that Congress may do whatever it wishes as long as the Bill of Rights protections of Liberty are not violated. Ordering New York State to take title to low-level radioactive waste generated within the state (New York v. United States) did not violate any person’s substantive due process rights, but the order was nonetheless unconstitutional because it exceeded Congress’s powers. The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act did not, as applied, violate the Second Amendment rights of Alfonso Lopez, who was carrying the gun to deliver it to a criminal gang. Yet the Act still exceeded Congress’s commerce power. A limiting principle must limit the exercise of the power itself, not merely point out that the Bill of Rights protects some islands of Liberty which the infinitely vast sea of federal power might not cover.

Finally, I certainly agree with Professor Siegel that the Fifth Amendment’s liberty guarantee (and its 14th Amendment analogue for the states) should be interpreted to say that no American government can order people to consume a certain amount of healthy food, or to exercise. But there is no major case that is on point for this. The argument for a new unenumerated right “not to eat the minimum quantity of nutritious food which government scientists have  determined is essential for good health” is something that would have to be built almost entirely by extrapolation from cases that have nothing to do with food. I hope that courts would accept the argument; but if the political culture ever moved far enough so that a nutrition mandate could pass a legislature, I’m not as certain as Prof. Siegel that courts would overturn the mandate. The odds of winning a case against a nutrition mandate will be better if the judges who decide that case have not grown up in a nation where a federal health control mandate is the law of the land.

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Obamacare in Wonderland

Posted by on Feb 09 2012 | Commerce Clause, Constitutional Theory, Health Care, Individual Mandate, Necessary and Proper, Taxing and Spending Clause

That’s the title of a new article by Gary Lawson and me, forthcoming in a symposium issue of Boston University’s American Journal of Law & Medicine. The Journal has a large readership among medical professionals who are interested in legal issues relating to medicine. Accordingly, if you have been following the VC’s debate on the ACA over the past couple years, most of what is in the article will already be familiar to you. Here is the abstract:

The question whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”) is “unconstitutional” is thorny, not simply because it presents intriguing issues of interpretation but also because it starkly illustrates the ambiguity that often accompanies the word “unconstitutional.” The term can be, and often is, used to mean a wide range of things, from inconsistency with the Constitution’s text to inconsistency with a set of policy preferences. In this article, we briefly explore the range of meanings that attach to the term “unconstitutional,” as well as the problem of determining the “constitutionality” of a lengthy statute when only some portions of the statute are challenged. We then, using “unconstitutional” to mean” inconsistent with an original social understanding of the Constitution’s text (with a bit of a nod to judicial precedents),” show that the individual mandate in the PPACA is not authorized by the federal taxing power, the federal commerce power, or the Necessary and Proper Clause and is therefore unconstitutional.


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What Should the Supreme Court do with the Obamacare Case?

Posted by on Oct 03 2011 | Commerce Clause, Constitutional Law, Health Care, Individual Mandate

That’s the question posed today over at Scotusblog. It’s the premiere of the Scotusblog Community, which aims to encourage discussions by Scotusblog readers. To start the ball rolling, Scotusblog solicited short comments (up to 2 paragraphs) from Erwin Chemerinsky, Dawn Johnsen, Ilya Shapiro, Stephen Presser, Adam Winkler, and me, among others.

My answer to what the Supreme Court should do is:

The Court should re-affirm Gibbons v. Ogden, which followed the original understanding of the interstate commerce clause: “commerce” means mercantile exchange, plus some closely-related subjects, such as navigation. Among the subjects which are not interstate commerce, according to Gibbons, are “health laws of every description.” The Court should then over-rule South-Eastern Underwriters (1944), which broke from long-established precedent, and declared that even purely intrastate insurance was interstate commerce. Because South-Eastern claimed to be following original meaning, the modern Court should simply point out that none of the original sources cited by the South-Eastern opinion remotely support the contention that all forms of insurance are “commerce.”
Finally, Congress should explain that the Necessary and Proper clause underscores the unconstitutionality of the mandate. As McCulloch v. Maryland demonstrated, the original meaning of the clause affirms the Congress may exercise powers which are incidental to an enumerated power. The power to compel a private person to engage in commerce with a private company is not an incident of, or lesser than, the power to regulate voluntary interstate commerce. Further, government-created monopolies were, in the Founding Era, a paradigmatic example of improper government action. Therefore, it is not constitutionally “proper” to force citizens to spend their money on a government-favored Big Insurance oligopoly.

The rationale for the above can be found in my articles Bad News for Professor Koppelman: The Incidental Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate, 121 Yale Law Journal Online (forthcoming 2011)(with Gary Lawson); Health Laws of Every Description”: John Marshall’s Ruling on a Federal Health Care Law, 12 Engage 49 (June 2011) (with Robert G. Natelson); Commerce in the Commerce Clause: A Response to Jack Balkin, 109 Michigan Law Review First Impressions 55 (2010) (with Natelson); and Health insurance is not ‘commerce’: A single erroneous Supreme Court precedent from 1944, South-Eastern Underwriters, should be overturned, National Law Journal, March 28, 2011 (with Natelson) (available on Lexix/Nexis).

Since Scotusblog is trying to get people to comment on its own website, I’m not opening comments on this post, and I encourage you to share you thoughts over at Scotusblug.

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Why the Obamacare penalty is not a “tax”

Posted by on Sep 11 2011 | Commerce Clause, Health Care, Taxes

Rob Natelson explains it all in his latest blog post. Short answer: if the purpose of the tax is raising revenue (e.g., the Stamp Act), it’s a tax. If the purpose is the regulation of commerce (e.g., a prohibitive tariff on imported French clothing; a shipping tax dedicated to paying for harbor improvements), then it’s not a “tax” in the the constitutional sense. Rather, it is a regulation of commerce.

The American colonists believed that Parliament had full authority to regulate external commerce, such as by imposing protectionist tariffs. The colonists also believed that Parliament had no authority to impose domestic taxes in the colonies (such as the Stamp Act). The colonists had a very firm sense of the distinction, and ended up going to war over Parliament’s refusal to respect that distinction. Because the Obamacare mandate is designed purely to control behavior, and not to raise revenue (even if it, like a protectionist tariff on French clothing does ultimately raise a little revenue), the Obamacare mandate is a type of commerce regulation, and not a tax in the constitutional sense. That, at least, is what the original meaning tells us.

Of course whether the individual mandate actually qualifies as a regulation of “commerce…among the several States” is a separate issue. The original meaning question for the mandate’s penalty is a commerce issue, not a tax issue.

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Time Magazine: Meet Professor Rob Natelson

Posted by on Jun 27 2011 | Commerce Clause, Constitutional Amendments, Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, Economic LIberties, health control law, obama, obamacare, PPC, U.S. Constitution

The fiery debates over our national debt, ever expanding undeclared wars, and Obamacare have resurrected a new found interest in Constitutional matters. This is great for us because we happen to have one of the leading scholars on the Constitution in our Independence Institute offices, Senior Fellow in Constitution Studies Rob Natelson. He writes a great blog for us over at and does weekly podcasts with a minion of mine over at

I’d like to point out his blog post for this week that completely eviscerates the cover article on our Constitution by Richard Stengel in Time Magazine. In it, Rob deconstructs some points Mr. Stengel was trying to make in regards to the meaning of our Constitution. As an expert on the meaning of the Constitution, Rob was able to point out the many flaws in Mr. Stengel’s points. The Time Mag article is instructive as I believe it reflects many people’s thinking about our founding document. As such, Rob wrote an entire book exploding many of the common myths that Mr. Stengel repeats tirelessly in the article. To keep yourself from making many of these popular mistakes, keep following Rob’s work on

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The Constitution: Does the Necessary and Proper Clause Grant “Broad Authority” to Congress? Actually, None at All

Posted by on May 18 2011 | Commerce Clause, Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, federalism, Health Care, health control law, Necessary and Proper, obamacare, Originalism, PPC, Tenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution, U.S. Constitution

Probably no part of the Constitution has been so misunderstood as the Necessary and Proper Clause, which is located at Article I, Section 8, Clause 18. The Necessary and Proper Clause has been called both an “elastic clause” and a “sweeping clause,” and many have claimed it grants vast power to Congress. For example, a recent Supreme Court case, United States v. Comstock, stated that the “Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress broad authority to enact federal legislation.”

In fact, most federal regulations today are justified by the Necessary and Proper Clause. They are said to be within Congress’s Interstate Commerce Power— but within not the core Commerce Clause (“The Congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce . . . among the several States”). Rather, they are said to be supported by the accompanying authority to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” the power to regulate commerce.

Now, here’s the irony of the situation: Far from granting “broad authority” to Congress, the truth is that Necessary and Proper Clause grants no power at all. It is placed at the end of Article I, Section 8 as an explanation—that is, a “recital.” A recital is a passage in a legal document that has no substantive legal effect, but serves to inform the reader of assumptions or facts behind the document. Another example of a recital in the Constitution is the Preamble.

In recent years, several constitutional scholars have investigated the true meaning of the Clause, and have worked to correct the record. The process began with an article written by Professor Gary L. Lawson and Patricia B. Granger: The Proper Scope of Federal Power: A Jurisdictional Interpretation of the Sweeping Clause, 43 Duke L. J. 267 (1994). It focused on the meaning of “proper.” A decade later, I delved into the historical record. I found that wording of this kind was extremely common in eighteenth-century documents granting power from one person to another. I also found the courts had issued cases interpreting this language, and that the Founders had adopted the courts’ interpretation. See articles here and here.

Finally, Professors Lawson and I teamed up with two other noted scholars, Geoff Miller, and Guy Seidman, and wrote a book on the subject. (We all have differing political views, by the way.) The book is called The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause, and it was published last year by Cambridge University Press.

Here’s what we found:

* The Clause is a mere recital. It informs the reader how to interpret congressional authority. It does not grant any power.

* The term “necessary” tells the reader that congressional authority is interpreted according to the intent behind the document, rather than very strictly (as the Articles of Confederation required).

* The Clause does this by telling the reader that the legal “doctrine of incidental powers” applies to the Constitution. This means that Congress can regulate certain activities outside the strict reading of its powers, but ONLY IF this ancillary regulation is (1) subordinate to an express power, and (2) a customary or necessary way of carrying out the express power. For example, in regulating commerce, Congress can require accurate labels on goods to be shipped in interstate commerce. But Congress cannot regulate the entire manufacturing process.

* The word “proper” means that a law must comply with Congress’s fiduciary (public trust) responsibilities. A law is not “proper”—and is therefore unconstitutional— if it invidiously discriminates among people, violates individual rights, is utterly irrational, or exceeds congressional authority.

* Contrary to prevailing legal mythology, Chief Justice Marshall’s famous case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) did not stretch the Clause, but applied it properly and with due regard for its limitations.

Recently, Dave Kopel, the Independence Institute Research Director, filed an amicus curiae brief in the most important anti-Obamacare lawsuit. He did so on behalf of Professors Lawson, Seidman, and me. The goal? To correct the record and inform the courts what the Necessary and Proper Clause REALLY means.

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The individual mandate is neither “necessary” nor “proper”

Posted by on May 11 2011 | Commerce Clause, Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, Individual Mandate, Necessary and Proper

(David Kopel)

That’s the argument of an Independence Institute amicus brief submitted to the 11th Circuit in Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services. Here’s the summary of argument:

The Necessary and Proper Clause was one of a large family of similar clauses commonly appearing in eighteenth-century legal instruments delegating authority from one party to another. Those clauses followed several possible formulae. The Necessary and Proper Clause is a specimen of the most restrictive of those formulae: It does not actually grant additional authority beyond that conveyed by other enumerated powers. Rather, it is a recital, designed to inform the reader of two legal default rules: 

First, that express grants of enumerated powers, stated elsewhere, carry with them subsidiary incidental powers (“necessary”). 

Second, that congressional enactments must comply with standards of fiduciary obligation and administrative reasonableness (“proper”).

This understanding of the Clause appears in the legal practices and leading cases at the time the Constitution was adopted, and also in the history of the Clause itself—the records of its drafting, in the ratification debates, in the Supreme Court’s great case on the subject, M’Culloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819), and in Chief Justice John Marshall’s public explanations of M’Culloch.

Once the meaning of the Clause is understood, the implications for the individual mandate are clear:

The mandate is not “necessary” because power to impose it is not a subsidiary “incident” to Congress’s Commerce Power. The power to compel the purchase of a product is as great or greater than the power to regulate voluntary commerce; therefore the mandate cannot be an incidental power regardless of how helpful it might be. For Congress to possess authority of that kind, it would have to be separately enumerated in the Constitution.

The mandate is not “proper” because it violates the fiduciary obligations of impartiality embedded in the word “proper.” During the debates over ratification, participants recognized that a law chartering a commercial monopoly would be “improper.” A fortiori, compelled purchase from favored oligopolists is improper.

Thus, to the extent that the constitutionality of the individual mandate depends upon the Necessary and Proper Clause, the mandate is unconstitutional.

Besides the Independence Institute, the amici on the brief are Prof. Gary Lawson (BU), Prof. Robert G. Natelson (retired from U. Montana Law; currently a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute); and Prof. Guy I. Seidman (Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel). The three professors are among the co-authors of The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Cambridge, 2010).

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