Gaming the System
At the Supreme Court, could legal precedent be less important than popular opinion?
Articles of faith, as a rule, don't change every few months. And yet, just nine months ago, it was an article of faith among court watchers that President Obama's health care reform plan would be upheld at the Supreme Court by a margin of 7-2 or 8-1. Today it is an equally powerful article of faith that everything rests in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy in what will surely be a 5-4 decision. What changed between last March and last Monday?
To review: When the first lawsuits were filed challenging the law in March 2010, the conventional wisdom was that they were little more than a Tea Party stunt. "Several constitutional law experts said this week that it is somewhere between unlikely and hard-to-imagine that the Supreme Court would strike down the new healthcare law," wrote David Savage at the Los Angeles Times. He quoted George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr, a former Kennedy clerk, saying that "there is a less than 1 percent chance that the courts will invalidate the individual mandate." In Newsweek in September 2010, Stuart Taylor quoted Walter Dellinger, acting solicitor general under President Clinton, predicting an 8-1 vote at the high court, and Tom Goldstein, another prominent court watcher and litigator, calling for a vote of 7-2.
Fast forward to this week. As my colleague David Weigel put it Monday: "The fate of health care reform is where it was yesterday—in the hands of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy." The Wall Street Journal agreed, sighing, "As with so many contentious issues in American life, destiny appears to have appointed [Kennedy] the ultimate arbiter of the constitutionality of the linchpin of this new law: the individual mandate."
Now, the composition of the court has not changed since last year. Nor has the meaning of the Commerce Clause, or the decades of precedents interpreting that doctrine, or the words of the Affordable Care Act itself. The only thing that has shifted between the filing of the Obama health care suits and Judge Roger Vinson's decision finding the entire bill unconstitutional is the odds. We went from "a less than 1 percent chance" of the suits succeeding to their success being determined by a coin flip in Anthony Kennedy's chambers.
Putting aside the question of whether it matters what court watchers think—or whether the new odds should make any difference—it's astounding to witness the conventional wisdom shift so dramatically and so rapidly. It took years for court watchers to take challenges to the collective-rights theory of the Second Amendment seriously. It's taken just weeks for them to come to believe that the fate of the health care law may be decided by a single vote.
To those in the business of making predictions about the Supreme Court justices, one thing that did change was a smoke signal sent up by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia last month in a passionate dissent from the court's refusal to hear a case from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Alderman v. United States involved the right of the federal government to criminalize a violent felon's purchase of body armor. And as Andrew Cohen explained it, the two justices weren't obligated to publish a lengthy dissent, spelling out—complete with references to Hershey's Kisses (the new broccoli?)—their view that the Commerce Clause does not allow the federal government to make such a regulation. Their small treatise on the limits of the Commerce Clause's power, Cohen wrote, "confirms to the world that no more than seven votes on the Supreme Court are still in play over the constitutionality of the federal health care measure."
Court watchers have long argued that Scalia cannot possibly square his vote (indeed his own words) in the 2005 case of Gonzales v. Raich with a vote to strike down health care reform. Once they read the Thomas/Scalia dissent in Alderman, they had to swallow hard. In Raich, Scalia agreed that Congress could regulate marijuana that was neither purchased nor sold in any market but grown for medicinal reasons at home. "The authority to enact laws necessary and proper for the regulation of interstate commerce is not limited to laws governing intrastate activities that substantially affect interstate commerce," Scalia wrote. "Where necessary to make a regulation of interstate commerce effective, Congress may regulate even those intrastate activities that do not themselves substantially affect interstate commerce." He added that "Congress may regulate even noneconomic local activity if that regulation is a necessary part of a more general regulation of interstate commerce."
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Justice Anthony Kennedy by David Paul Morris/Getty Images.