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A Guide to the Healthcare Ruling- What Could Happen and What It Means

This week, the highly anticipated Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare’s constitutionality is expected as early as Monday or as late as Thursday.

Depending on the ruling, Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida could turn out to be the biggest Supreme Court decision, possibly since the New Deal era NLRB v. Jones & Loughlin Steel. This case, one of the first cases upholding FDR’s policies after his threat to pack the court, is the reason for the current broad interpretation of the commerce clause. A ruling against Obamacare could overturn this interpretation.

There are three possible ways that the Supreme Court could rule.

  1. They could uphold Obamacare. If this is the case, it will most likely be because Obamacare is considered a tax, not implemented until 2013, and the Court will rule they cannot adjudicate on it until it goes into affect.
  2. Part of the law will be overturned. If this is the case, most likely the individual mandate will be struck down.
  3. Obamacare in its entirety will be overruled. Based on oral arguments, this will be because they see the power of a federal government that can tell you to purchase insurance as an absolute and unlimited government.

If the judges do rule against Obamacare, either in part or in whole, it could spell the era of a new Supreme Court.

The oral arguments of the case are interesting, chiefly because the majority of the discussion over the laws validity relies upon the Constitution. The federal government maintains they have the power to issue a purchase mandate through the taxing power of the Commerce Clause and through the power of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. As it happens, the language of both clauses proves exactly the opposite.

The taxing power of Congress is limited to three specific purposes- paying debts, providing for the common defense and providing for the general welfare of the United States (meaning the welfare of the nation, not social welfare programs). As the Tenth Amendment states, the powers not expressly given to the federal government, if they are not prohibited to the states, lie with the states. Obviously, this makes a federal purchase mandate, as a tax, unconstitutional since it is not a power granted to the federal government.

Similarly, the Commerce Clause states Congress can regulate commerce among the several states. The intention of this, as defined by The Federalist Papers, is to oversee that commerce between states, such as a transaction between Connecticut and Maryland. The purpose of this is not to regulate commerce within states. Again, based on the original intent, the purchase mandate is clearly unconstitutional.

However, this case is significant specifically because of the Constitutional arguments. The majority of cases argued before the Supreme Court are adjudicated based on case law- that is laws and precedents established by the rulings of previous cases, not their Constitutionality. This of course, is not in line with the definition of the Supreme Court’s function as explained in The Federalist Papers, which is to determine if the implementation of laws is in line with the Constitution. But, the strictly Constitutional arguments in regards to the healthcare law may set a new precedent. Whether the Supreme Court rules for or against the law, the ruling will be based on what powers the federal government has, through the Constitution, over its citizens.

The second reason this ruling is important is because it involves the commerce clause. The Supreme Court’s ruling in NRLB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel is seen as one of the most pivotal cases in this country’s history. Essentially, the Supreme Court ruled that even though business activities may be strictly intrastate, if they have close ties to interstate commerce, Congress had the authority to ‘protect’ that commerce from burdens and regulations. This gave Congress the authority to legislate on virtually anything business related, because under that interpretation, basically all commerce is considered interstate. This Supreme Court case really began the era of a broader, more powerful federal government. But, if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate, this precedent could be reversed. If the Supreme Court denies the constitutionality of the individual mandate on the grounds of the Commerce Clause, they are essentially saying that something you purchase in one state is not interstate commerce just because you may use it in another state. This could be the catalyst that starts to shrink much of the power that Congress and the executive office received from the New Deal.

There is of course the possibility that the Supreme Court could rule in favor of the healthcare law. Hopefully, if this is the case, it will be because they consider the individual purchase mandate a tax, and cannot rule on taxes that are not in effect yet. If however, they rule that the individual mandate is constitutional, this could become the era of a federal government that has virtually no limits. Even if that’s the ruling, it’s likely Obamacare will be challenged again over whether the contraception coverage mandate violates religious freedom.

Whatever the ruling turns out to be, it has the makings to be a case as significant as NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel, and could substantially alter the power of the federal government.

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