April 9, 2011
On Floors, Ceilings, Federalism and Constitutional Law Exams: West Virginia Weekend
The passage of the Affordable Care Act in early 2010 has prompted a variety of constitutional challenges which we’ve covered extensively, including here and here. For ConLawProfs who like to frame their examinations around curent controversies, the Affordable Health Care Act provides an excellent opportunity.
A good background and refresher on federal power and federalism concerns is WVU College of Law Professor Gerald G. Ashdown 's article Federalism’s Floor, 80 Miss. L.J. 69, 74 (2010). Ashdown examines the Rehnquist Court’s movement toward limited federal power, and then attempts to explain why the federalism movement “seems to have bottomed out, or reached a floor on limiting the reach of federal power." In doing so, Ashdown frames his analysis with a discussion of several factors, including the “natural limits on the Court’s recent Commerce Clause, sovereign immunity, and Section 5 (of the Fourteenth Amendment) decisions; congressional use of the Spending Clause, and politics both outside and inside the Court.” Id.
First, Ashdown’s look at recent Commerce Clause cases brings his thesis into clearer focus. Most students of constitutional law are quite familiar with the decisions in United States v. Lopez and United States v. Morrison, cases which struck down federal enactments under a narrower application of the Commerce Clause. Students should be just as familiar with Gonzales v. Raich, a decision in which the court upheld the authority of Congress to regulate the intrastate production and use of marijuana under the aggregation theory of the Commerce Clause, best exemplified by the decision in Wickard v. Filburn. Ashdown writes that “Raich is a hard case, and although it did not necessarily produce bad law, it did produce weird, if not predictable, results—at least for federalism after Lopez and Morrison.” Id. at 77. Ultimately, Ashdown concludes that “[e]ven when the affecting commerce theory of Lopez and Morrison is relied upon, there seem to be practical and ideological barriers, illustrated by Raich, to limiting federal commerce authority. In other words, there are pragmatic barriers to further Court action restricting congressional power under the Commerce Clause.” Id. at 79-80.
Professor Ashdown turns next to the complex subject of sovereign immunity and the effect of Section 5 abrogation, writing that
[t]he combination of Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, which held that Congress could abrogate state sovereign immunity only under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment and not under the Commerce Clause, and City of Boerne v. Flores, interpreting Section 5 narrowly to disallow Congress from protecting “rights” more broadly than those identified by the Supreme Court, seemed to place substantial limits on the reach of federal authority over the states. Taken together, these cases mean that Congress only has Section 5 power to regulate state government and that the federal enactment must be a “congruent and proportional” remedy to a constitutional violation identified by the Court.
Id. at 80. Despite these barriers to expanded federal power, a more recent decision in Nevada Dep’t of Human Resources v. Hibbs, upheld the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because the Act was a proportional and congruent remedy to the historical discrimination by states on the basis of gender. Next, Professor Ashdown surveys Spending Clause jurisprudence, beginning with the key case of South Dakota v. Dole, where the Court upheld the federal requirement that states accepting highway funds must enact twenty-one-year-old drinking age laws or suffer loss of funding. While it upheld the restriction, the Court took note of some limits on conditional spending. “The Court’s own spending jurisprudence thus provides another barrier to judicial tinkering with the federalism balance,” according to Ashdown. Id. at 93. Finally, Ashdown observes the effects of national political processes on some federalism issues that reach the courts. The federal partial-birth abortion ban illustrates Ashdown’s point. “The pro-life, conservative side that normally would align with restraints on federal power naturally supported the statute, and the pro-choice group who opposed the Act evidently was unwilling to challenge the use of federal authority, something liberals generally favor, . . . as social progressives would be extremely reluctant to give the federal courts . . . the opportunity to place further limits on federal commerce power.” Id. at 97-98. These “political checks,” Ashdown argues, operate in addition to judicial dynamics “as a practical floor on potential judicial inroads on federal power.” Id. at 98-99.
In the end, Ashdown observes that “the Supreme Court’s own jurisprudence has established a floor on shifting power to state governments,” and “[f]ederalism tends to get ignored in favor of first-order issues like abortion, gun control, and civil rights.” Id. at 103. Ashdown aptly foreshadows the litigation surrounding the Affordable Health Care Act - - - and possible "floor and ceiling" issues on forthcoming constitutional law exams.
with J. Zak Ritchie
[image: Inside the US Supreme Court building via]
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