On Thursday, a group of Democratic attorneys general received permission to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republican officials. That lawsuit, originally filed in February, seeks to strike down all of Obamacare.
The lawsuit forces me to distinguish between policy preferences and the rule of law. Strictly on the policy, I want to repeal Obamacare as much as the next conservative does. However, in this case, striking down the law through legal fiat would represent judicial activism at its worst—asking unelected judges to do what elected members of Congress took great pains to avoid.
John Roberts’ Logic
The lawsuit (a copy of the original complaint is here) relies heavily on Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2012 ruling upholding the individual mandate. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that forcing individuals to purchase health coverage (or anything else) violated the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. However, the court ultimately held that Congress could enact a mandate to purchase coverage pursuant to its taxing power.
Last December, Congress set the individual mandate penalty to zero beginning in January 2019. As others previously argued, the action eliminated the basis on which the Supreme Court found the mandate constitutional. Thus, the lawsuit alleges, the court should strike down the individual mandate—and, consistent with the reasoning of four dissenting justices (Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) in the 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius case—all of Obamacare with it.
Congress Has Spoken
There’s one major flaw with the lawsuit’s logic: While Obamacare did not contain a severability clause, Congress in its infinite wisdom last year chose to eliminate the mandate penalty—and only the mandate penalty. Severability tests the court established work to determine first and foremost “whether the provisions will work as Congress intended,” as the dissenters noted back in 2012.
Because Congress, in the time since Obamacare passed, quite clearly eliminated only the mandate penalty, it demonstrated its intent. Regardless of whether federal courts strike down the mandate—now an edict in law unenforceable by any penalty—as unconstitutional, they cannot, and should not, strike down any other portion of the law.
In essence, the lawsuit asks the federal courts to do what Congress decided last year not to do: repeal all of Obamacare. Rather than working to persuade Congress to go back, consider health care anew, and pass the full repeal lawmakers ran on for four straight election cycles, the litigants instead hope to nullify Obamacare through a deus ex machina intervention of five of nine justices on the Supreme Court.
As a matter of law, the court should do no such thing. Substituting the judgment of unelected judges for popularly elected members of Congress would further erode the institutions supporting the rule of law. The protests on both the left and right regarding last year’s health-care legislation would pale in comparison to any demonstration should five unelected judges now decide to strike down all of Obamacare, and with good reason.
Moreover, this apparent application of situational ethics—“conservatives” supporting judicial activism when it furthers their policy objectives—will only undermine future attempts to constrain legislating from the bench. When it comes to asking courts to strike down massive pieces of legislation, conservatives should be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it—not on Obamacare, but on other major bills they do support.