August 24, 2011
The Thomases and Health Care Reform
Justice Clarence Thomas and his activist spouse Virginia could deliver a one-two punch to the Affordable Care Act's individual health insurance mandate, Jeffery Toobin writes in his New Yorker article, Will Clarence and Virginia Thomas succeed in killing Obama's health-care plan?
Toobin traces the couple's many conservative connections and argues that Virginia Thomas has worked tirelessly in her conservative policy circles against the measure just as Justice Thomas has all but called his own vote (against, if there were any doubt) when the mandate inevitably reaches the Court.
Toobin points to Justice Thomas's concurrence in Printz v. U.S. as evidence that Thomas has led the Court's thinking on the Second Amendment--and that he might lead the Court's thinking on the individual health insurance mandate. In that case, asking whether Congress had authority to require local law enforcement officers to temporarily conduct background checks on gun purchasers, Justice Thomas agreed with the majority that the law violated the Constitution, but added to the majority's reasoning. Instead of ruling only that the law violated principles of dual sovereignty (as the majority did), Justice Thomas added (for himself alone) that the original meaning of the Second Amendment might also block the law--a view that presaged the Court's approach in D.C. v. Heller, eleven years later.
Justice Thomas wrote another concurrence, in U.S. v. Lopez, that would have read a more restricted Commerce Clause than the majority in that case. If Thomas leads the Court's Commerce Clause jurisprudence as he led the Second Amendment jurisprudence, his Lopez concurrence could presage a Court ruling against the individual mandate, just as his Printz concurrence presaged the Court's approach in Heller.
But if Justice Thomas is sometimes a leader in the Court's jurisprudence, he's also sometimes completely out of step--as Toobin himself points out. Toobin points to Justice Thomas's approach to the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, where Thomas's rigid originalism, on full display in his concurrence in Baze v. Rees, would allow all but the most horrific punishments.
His cramped reading of the Commerce Clause in Lopez may be similarly out of step with this Court. Remember that Chief Justice Rehnquist--no free-wheeler on the Commerce Clause--wrote the opinion of the Court in Lopez; Justice Thomas wrote separately to go him one better. In terms of Thomas's approach (even if not the result), recall that Justice Scalia, the Court's other famous originalist, even if only "faint-hearted," joined Rehnquist, not Thomas.
Justice Thomas's vote on the individual mandate may already be in. But whatever the result in the case, it doesn't seem at all certain that the Court will follow his approach.
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