A decision is expected this month on whether the Affordable Care Act will be struck down by the United States Supreme Court. Legal scholars suspect that the individual mandate provision faces the most risk of being struck from the law, while experts expect the remainder of the law to stand. It is not clear what the Supreme Court will decide, but a lot of people have been confused on what the Court will look at when deciding whether to uphold the law.
In order to understand the Government’s legal justification for the law, one needs to understand the Commerce Clause in our Constitution. This clause has been used to expand what Congress can and can’t regulate through its laws. Essentially, the Commerce Clause permits Congress to regulate commerce between states. Thus, if the commercial activity involves “interstate commerce” then Congress can regulate it by statute.
The seminal case in this matter was Wickard v. Filburn. In Wickard, Congress had passed a law that regulated how much wheat a farmer could grow on his property. The law was passed in order to drive up wheat prices in a down economy. Mr. Filburn was a farmer who grew wheat for his own personal consumption. The government ordered him to destroy his crops and pay a fine. His appeal followed. In upholding the law, the Supreme Court expanded the commerce clause power to include anything that has an effect on interstate commerce. This expansive language has been relied on since that time in order to uphold a large amount of congressional statutes. The Wickard decision has garnered the ire of many strict constitutional scholars that felt the expansion on the commerce clause power was not what the Framers of the Constitution intended.
How does this affect the Health Care debate? Well, the justification the government has relied on in supporting the law is the commerce clause and its expansive power. While experts do not expect the law to be struck down, many expect the individual mandate portion to be eliminated. The individual mandate forces citizens to purchase health insurance, and has a system of penalties in place if they do not. The government argues that health care is interstate commerce and falls squarely within its power. The opponents argue that forcing a citizen to purchase health insurance infringes on their freedoms, and is an unjustified expansion of the commerce clause power.
Leaving the politics of the health care debate aside for a minute, the decision, in this case, will be a seminal moment in the commerce clause debate, and could have far-reaching consequences on future cases brought under the clause. If you would like to learn more about the health care decision, and other decisions in front of the Supreme Court this session, the SCOTUS blog has a “plain English” post explaining in layman’s terms the issues of each case.