Next week will mark the first anniversary of the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v Brien. Seven justices unanimously concluded that the section of the Iowa Code enacted through our state’s Defense of Marriage Act violates the equal protection provision of the Iowa Constitution. Since the day that decision was announced, many Iowa Republicans have called for overturning the court’s ruling. Some have denied that county recorders were obliged to implement the ruling, or insisted that government officials may ignore a court’s opinion about the constitutionality of a law. Others have called on Iowans to vote against retaining justices who supposedly overreached their authority. For example, gubernatorial candidate Rod Roberts said last November,
“We need to send a message to the Iowa Supreme Court that they are accountable to the people of Iowa,” said Roberts, who has made restoring the role of the people in state government a centerpiece of his campaign. “The problem with judicial activism is that it thwarts the will of the legislature and of the people of Iowa.”
Now that Congress has approved a health insurance reform bill Republicans don’t like, some GOP politicians have decided judicial activism isn’t so bad after all. Gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats pledged to “invoke the Constitution’s 10th Amendment to protect Iowans from new federal mandates” on health care. Rod Roberts followed Vander Plaats’ lead:
Roberts said that if the federal government passes a nationalized health care plan that conflicts with the Roberts Amendment, as governor he will file a lawsuit in federal court against President Obama to have the plan struck down as a violation of Iowans’ Tenth Amendment rights. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that powers not delegated to the federal government (such as the regulation of health insurance) are reserved for the states.
Gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad also supported the idea of using the courts to nullify the will of Congress: “Given the massive scope and effect of this [health insurance reform] bill, it is likely that various provisions will be challenged in the courts. Those challenges are both timely and appropriate.”
Any constitutional lawyer can tell you that the U.S. Supreme Court has long affirmed the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. Law professor Mark Hall explains in detail here why constitutional arguments against an individual mandate to purchase health insurance are wrong. As for the broader 10th amendment claim that the constitution doesn’t empower the federal government to regulate health insurance, Hall notes, “Congress has ample power and precedent through the Constitution’s ‘Commerce Clause’ to regulate just about any aspect of the national economy.”
Conservative legal scholar Eugene Volokh likewise does not find the constitutional arguments against health insurance reform convincing:
While I agree that the recent commerce clause cases hold that Congress may not regulate noneconomic activity, as such, they also state that Congress may reach otherwise unregulable conduct as part of an overarching regulatory scheme, where the regulation of such conduct is necessary and proper to the success of such scheme. In this case, the overall scheme would involve the regulation of “commerce” as the Supreme Court has defined it for several decades, as it would involve the regulation of health care markets. And the success of such a regulatory scheme would depend upon requiring all to participate. (Among other things, if health care reform requires insurers to issue insurance to all comers, and prohibits refusals for pre-existing conditions, then a mandate is necessary to prevent opportunistic behavior by individuals who simply wait to purchase insurance until they get sick.)
The U.S. Supreme Court could overrule the will of Congress on health insurance reform only by reversing several decades of precedent about the definition of commerce. That’s textbook “judicial activism,” but it’s ok with some Iowa Republicans if it achieves the political end they are seeking.
By the way, Vander Plaats claims that as governor, he could issue an executive order halting same-sex marriages in Iowa. I wonder if he also thinks President Barack Obama could issue an executive order overturning a possible Supreme Court ruling against health insurance reform.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum considers prospects for a lawsuit challenging the individual mandate to buy health insurance. He makes the same point about Congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce and adds,
What’s more, the penalties for not buying insurance are tax penalties, and if anything, Congress has even wider scope in the tax area than in the commerce area. The Supreme Court has frequently ruled that Congress can pass tax laws that essentially force people to do things that Congress doesn’t have the direct power to require.
[…]here’s the thing: if the Supreme Court decided to overturn decades of precedent and strike down the mandate even though Kevin Drum says they shouldn’t (hard to imagine, I know), the insurance industry will go ballistic. If they’re required to cover all comers, even those with expensive pre-existing conditions, then they have to have a mandate in order to get all the healthy people into the insurance pool too. So they would argue very persuasively that unless Congress figures out a fix, they’ll drive private insurers out of business in short order. And that, in turn, will almost certainly be enough incentive for both Democrats and Republicans to find a way to enforce a mandate by other means. If necessary, there are ways to rewrite the rules so that people aren’t literally required to get insurance, but are incentivized so strongly that nearly everyone will do it. As an example, Congress might pass a law making state Medicaid funding dependent on states passing laws requiring residents to buy insurance. Dependent funding is something Congress does routinely, and states don’t have any constitutional issues when it comes to requiring residents to buy insurance. They all do it with auto insurance and Massachusetts does it with health insurance.
Like Drum, I view these proposed legal challenges as Republican posturing rather than a serious threat to nullify the law Obama signed this morning.