As you have already heard a few times on this blog, Professor Einer Elhauge, the Petrie-Flom Center’s Founding Faculty Director and Petrie Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, has a new book out on health care reform called Obamacare on Trial. The book collects various essays that Prof. Elhauge published in popular media outlets, along with several postscripts, and it has received all sorts of glowing praise.
Prof. Elhauge has graciously agreed to answer some questions for us in the first ever Bill of Health e-interview. Check it out:
Bill of Health: So, first things first, did the Supreme Court get it right in NFIB v. Sebelius?
Prof. Elhauge: The Supreme Court got the tax issue right, and I think the Medicaid expansion as well, but I think the Supreme Court got the commerce clause issue totally wrong. Worse, the way they got it wrong portends trouble for the future.
Bill of Health: What were you most surprised by in the SCOTUS decision?
Prof. Elhauge: The fact that a majority of the Supreme Court was willing to use a methodology that clearly expanded judicial discretion to overrule the political branches, and that no one really ever called them on it either on the Supreme Court or in the briefing.
Bill of Health: You’ve noted that you didn’t originally take the constitutional challenges to the Affordable Care Act seriously. Why do you think they were able to gain such traction?
Prof. Elhauge: I think the big problem was that the government never directly rebutted either the claim that purchase mandates were unprecedented or the dreaded broccoli hypothetical. Instead they tried to evade the question, I guess because they thought it was unfavorable to them, but the iron rule of litigation is that if you don’t discuss your problematic issues, then you leave your opponents to be the only one that discusses them, and they are sure to frame them in the way most unfavorable to you. The government’s unwillingness to engage this issue left the Supreme Court with the entirely false impression that Obamacare fundamentally changed the relationship between the individual and government, and that thus the government faced a heavy burden to justify the health insurance mandate. I think the government should’ve directly argued that in fact federal purchase mandates were not at all unprecedented, but rather that health insurance mandates went all the way back to the framers, who adopted two health insurance mandates in the 1790s in Congresses that had many framers on them. The government should’ve also pointed out that the argument that courts can, in the name of “limiting principles”, create brand-new restrictions on congressional power that have no basis in the Constitution in order to restrain the possibility that Congress might exercise a power in a silly way, like adopting a broccoli mandate, amounts to a remarkable usurpation of political power by the judicial branches. One could equally say that because Congress might pass silly laws like a law prohibiting the purchase of broccoli, the federal courts should impose a new constitutional limit that prevents Congress from ever restricting commerce. Or because Congress might tax 100% of our income to buy broccoli or go to war to get more broccoli, the Supreme Court should invalidate Congress’s power to tax or declare war. The “limiting principles” argument that was employed here ironically has no limiting principle and looks benign but is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing.