Monday, July 2, 2012

Chief Justice Roberts's Necessary and Proper Clause

What did Chief Justice Roberts do to the Necessary and Proper Clause in last week's ruling on the universal coverage provision of the Affordable Care Act?

Not much.  Here's why.

Let's start with the opinion.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote last week that universal coverage--the so-called individual mandate--exceeded Congress's authority under both the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause (although he wrote for a five-Justice majority that it fell within congressional taxing authority).  (We wrote here about the Chief's opinion on the Commerce Clause.)  In so writing, the Chief rejected the government's argument that because Congress had authority under the Commerce Clause to enact the guaranteed issue and community rating provisions, it also had authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause to enact universal coverage.  After all, everybody agreed that guaranteed issue and community rating alone wouldn't work; they needed an individual mandate. 

(Here's a primer.  Guaranteed issue requires insurance companies to provide insurance to all comers.  Community rating control premium rates within a particular community.  Under these provisions, insurance companies will have to cover everyone (including those with high medical costs), within a range of premium rates.  But when an insurance company covers everyone (including those with high medical costs), premiums go up.  And when premiums go up, without an ability to discriminate, individuals are driven out of the market.  Thus, guaranteed issue and community rating will drive up costs and drive down coverage.  Unless, that is, individuals are required to buy insurance.  If everybody has to buy insurance, the cost-distribution within the insurance pool will keep rates low (because the healthy, in effect, subsidize the unhealthy through the pool), and coverage (obviously) goes up.)

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the Necessary and Proper Clause wasn't so malleable.  He wrote that while universal coverage may be "necessary," it is not "proper," because universal coverage "draw[s] within its regulatory scope those who would otherwise be outside of it."  Op. at 30.  In other words, individuals are not the subject of the guaranteed issue and community rating regulations (insurance companies are); they are therefore not within the regulatory scope of valid congressional regulation under the Commerce Clause; and they are therefore outside of the scope of the Necessary and Proper Clause.  Op. at 29-30.  The Chief wrote that the Court's prior cases blessed congressional action under the Necessary and Proper Clause only when the subject of regulation under the Necessary and Proper Clause was already in the regulatory scope of congressional regulation under its principal Article I power.  Here's how he described it:

The individual mandate, by contrast, vests Congress with the extraordinary ability to create the necessary predicate to the exercise of an enumerated power.  This is in no way an authority that is "narrow in scope" . . . or "incidental" to the exercise of the commerce power.  Rather, such a conception of the Necessary and Proper Clause would work a substantial expansion of federal authority.  No longer would Congress be limited to regulating under the Commerce Clause those who by some preexisting activity bring themselves within the sphere of federal regulation.  Instead, Congress could reach beyond the natural limit of its authority and draw within its regulatory scope those who otherwise would be outside of it.  Even if the individual mandate is "necessary" to the Act's insurance reforms, such an expansion of federal power is not a "proper" means for making those reforms effective.

Op. at 29-30.

So, what's the effect of the Chief's opinion on the Necessary and Proper Clause?  Very little.

There are two problems.  The first one is exactly the same problem with the Chief's opinion on the Commerce Clause, only here it's even more pronounced.  That is: the opinion may well be dicta, and, even if it's not, it doesn't have strong support as a guiding opinion under the Marks rule.  Like Chief Justice Roberts's opinion on the Commerce Clause, his opinion on the Necessary and Proper Clause is not necessary to the Court's conclusion.  Moreover, he's writing just for himself.  The four "liberals" would have upheld universal coverage under the Necessary and Proper Clause.  And the four other "conservatives" declined to join the Chief--and were in even sharper disagreement with him than they were on the Commerce Clause.  (The four other conservatives would apparently read the Necessary and Proper Clause as allowing only regulation that is absolutely necessary to the named Article I powers--a reading that flies in the face of McCulloch v. Maryland and the Clause's entire history.  Dissent, at 9-10.)

Moreover, the Chief's analysis is weak and apparently disavowed by all on the Court (though for different reasons), further alienating and weakening it.  Chief Justice Roberts supports his new Necessary and Proper rule--that Congress can regulate only those things already within the regulatory scope--by describing the Court's prior Necessary and Proper cases.  But while his description may be accurate on the facts, it is not supported by the language and analysis of those rulings.  For example, the Court just two terms ago ruled in Comstock that the Necessary and Proper Clause allowed congress to authorize the detention of federal prisoners beyond their release date if they were deemed "sexually dangerous."  Why?  Because the Necessary and Proper Clause allows Congress to enact federal criminal law (in furtherance of its named Article I powers), and therefore to sentence offenders, and therefore to jail offenders, and therefore to keep dangerous offenders off the streets, even after their release dates--all in the name of the Necessary and Proper Clause.

Now it turns out that offenders were already within the regulatory scheme.  But the Court's ruling did not turn on that, and, in fact, nowhere mentioned it.  Instead, the Court said, quoting the usual language from McCulloch, that the Necessary and Proper Clause authorized Congress to take any action that was rationally related to its enumerated powers.

(The Court's opinion in Comstock was written by Justice Breyer.  And Chief Justice Roberts joined it in full, even though he could have signed on with one of two more restrictive concurrences, written by Justice Kennedy and Justice Alito.)

In short, nothing in Comstock, or the Court's other Necessary and Proper decisions, sets out Chief Justice Roberts's new rule.  It's just his gloss.  And one, apparently, that nobody else on the Court subscribes to in his way and for his reasons. 

But assuming that the courts treat the Chief's opinion as (at least) guiding, however--as they likely will--the second problem is that the Chief's opinion is quite narrow and thus only applicable to a small set of cases, if any.  After all: How often does Congress seek to regulate something under the Necessary and Proper Clause that isn't within the regulatory scheme of its power-in-chief?  By the Chief Justice's own reckoning: The Court has never seen this case.

And even if the Chief's opinion is guiding, courts must read it alongside Justice Breyer's majority opinion in Comstock--the Court's next-most recent foray into the Necessary and Proper Clause, and, again, an opinion that Chief Justice Roberts signed in full.  Read alongside the expansive and capacious Necessary and Proper Clause described in Comstock, Chief Justice Roberts's new rule seems a narrow exception, indeed.  Chief Justice Roberts did nothing last week to chip away at that expansive and capacious Clause; in fact, his opinion last week reaffirmed its long-standing principles (just as his opinion on the Commerce Clause reaffirmed the Court's broadest interpretations of that Clause).

In the end, the Chief's opinions on both the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause are almost certainly moot, anyway.  The real story of the case is Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion upholding universal coverage under the tax power.  Any future Congress seeking to enact legislation that would push up against Chief Justice Roberts's new rules for the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause would do well to simply enact the policy as a tax penalty.

SDS

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