On Thursday the nine members of the Supreme Court will gather in a conference room to discuss whether they should agree to review the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday, in a courtroom not far from where the justices will meet, three lower-court judges issued a decision that sharply increased the chances that the law will survive.
The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit released a decision in which all three judges on the case rejected a constitutional challenge to the individual mandate, which requires individuals to carry health insurance or pay a tax penalty. One of the three judges, George W. Bush appointee Brett Kavanaugh, finessed opining on the merits; he would have barred hearing the case until after the mandate takes effect in 2014, citing an Internal Revenue Code requirement that the legality of taxes cannot be challenged in court except by taxpayers disputing an existing collection effort. But Senior Judge Laurence Silberman, a Reagan appointee writing for himself and Carter appointee Harry Edwards, directly confronted the challenge to the individual mandate, and rejected it outright. That’s a formidable statement from a conservative icon—and a warning shot to the justices of the Supreme Court.
Silberman boasts a history of service to Republican presidents and conservative causes unmatched by any member of any court, including the current Supreme Court. Among many other entries, his résumé includes stints as acting attorney general during the Watergate crisis and as co-chair of George W. Bush’s 2004 blue-ribbon commission to investigate U.S. intelligence prior to the Iraq invasion. His judicial decisions include a vote to strike down the independent counsel statute threatening the Reagan presidency (in 1988) and the District of Columbia handgun ban in 2002.He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 by George W. Bush. Without question, Silberman’s decision will be perused by all members of the court, most particularly its five conservatives, prior to Thursday’s conference and, more importantly, before they render a final decision in 2012.
His opinion is not equivocal: He openly scorns the Affordable Care Act’s opponents as unable to “find real support [for their case] in either the text of the Constitution or Supreme Court precedent.” And while Silberman’s vote for upholding the mandate took most media observers off guard, it is neither isolated nor necessarily surprising. Until the ACA neared enactment in late 2009, almost all mainstream legal conservatives had—for nearly six decades—endorsed the post-New Deal Supreme Court’s consistent deference to legislators’ judgments about how best to regulate the national economy.
Robert Bork and the generation of conservative constitutionalists for whom he spoke once called the activist Supreme Court of the Lochner era, during which early 20th century pro-business justices struck down multiple economic regulatory reform laws, “the quintessence of judicial usurpation of power.” During the post-New Deal decades, only a handful of libertarian academics championed the idea of aggressive Supreme Court-imposed constraints on federal economic regulatory authority. The ACA lawsuits have suddenly catapulted these recently marginalized zealots to center stage, convincing many observers that libertarian activism has captured control of legal conservativism, just as Tea Party take-no-prisoners anti-government rigidity dominates Republican political ranks.
Silberman’s decision signals that this media-fueled impression is at best premature. Despite intense short-term political pressures and long-term ideological stakes, leading conservative jurists appear likely to stick to their traditional judicial restraint canon when deciding the fate of the ACA.