July 04--Our holiday this week can easily lose meaning amid the
cookouts, reunions and festivals. To remember the principles
of independence, we share excerpts from U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion last week on the constitutionality of
the Affordable Care Act.
With all the fervor about judicial activism, please notice that the chief justice writes about principle and precedent -- two more things that shouldn't get lost between the bratwurst and the baked beans.
Excerpts from Chief Justice John Roberts:
Today we resolve constitutional challenges to two provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010: the individual mandate, which requires individuals to purchase a health insurance policy providing a minimum level of coverage; and the Medicaid expansion, which gives funds to the states on the condition that they provide specified health care to all citizens whose income falls below a certain threshold.
We do not consider whether the act embodies sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the nation's elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenged provisions.
In our federal system, the national government possesses only limited powers; the states and the people retain the remainder. Nearly two centuries ago, Chief Justice Marshall observed that "the question respecting the extent of the powers actually granted" to the federal government "is perpetually arising, and will probably continue to arise, as long as our system shall exist."
This case concerns two powers that the Constitution does grant the federal government, but which must be read carefully to avoid creating a general federal authority akin to the police power.
The Constitution authorizes Congress to "regulate Commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes."
Our precedents read that to mean that Congress may regulate "the channels of interstate commerce," "persons or things in interstate commerce" and "those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce."
Congress may also "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States."
Put simply, Congress may tax and spend. This grant gives the federal government considerable influence even in areas where it cannot directly regulate. The federal government may enact a tax on an activity that it cannot authorize, forbid or otherwise control.
Members of this court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our nation's elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.
Our deference in matters of policy cannot, however, become abdication in matters of law ... Our respect for Congress's policy judgments thus can never extend so far as to disavow restraints on federal power that the Constitution carefully constructed.
The framers gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it, and for over 200 years both our decisions and Congress's actions have reflected this understanding. There is no reason to depart from that understanding now.
Under the mandate, if an individual does not maintain health insurance, the only consequence is that he must make an additional payment to the IRS when he pays his taxes.
Indeed, it is estimated that 4 million people each year will choose to pay the IRS rather than buy insurance ... That Congress apparently regards such extensive failure to comply with the mandate as tolerable suggests that Congress did not think it was creating 4 million outlaws. It suggests instead that the shared responsibility payment merely imposes a tax citizens may lawfully choose to pay in lieu of buying health insurance.
Congress's use of the taxing clause to encourage buying something is ... not new. Tax incentives already promote, for example, purchasing homes and professional educations. 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. Upholding the individual mandate under the taxing clause thus does not recognize any new federal power. It determines that Congress has used an existing one.
The Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax. Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.
(c)2012 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)
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