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Crime / Court

July 5, 2012

Health-care ruling was all about 'allowable power'

In a long anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of sweeping new federal health-care legislation. But, the late June decision sheds more light on how government claims a right of power than about heath care.

Most observers expected the court to base its final determination on the concept of federalism. The framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned federal government with limited specified powers, reserving all other powers to the states. So, under the commerce clause, the issue was whether Congress could use its power to require everyone to buy health insurance.

The commerce clause allows Congress to regulate commerce and activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. That power has been held to authorize federal regulation of things like what farmers grow and extortion by loan sharks. These are the court's examples, not mine. Simply put, the court fell one vote short of upholding the law on that basis.

But, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the court is reluctant to invalidate acts of Congress. "Proper respect for a co-ordinate branch of the government" means that the Supreme Court will strike down laws only with clear demonstration of unconstitutionality.

The proposed health-care law failed to meet the court's standards for allowable power of the federal government under the concept of limited power. But, the analysis didn't end there.

The law requires most people to have health insurance through an employer or to buy it on their own by 2014. The law itself never uses the word "tax." It says those who fail to comply with the mandate must pay a "shared responsibility payment" or a "penalty" to the federal government. But, whatever Congress called it, violators pay the Internal Revenue Service, facing the same collection and enforcement powers otherwise exercised by the IRS. So, the court found the law imposes a tax.

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