Sunday, January 03, 2010

Liberals, the Individual Mandate, and Critical Legal Studies

Mark Tushnet

This morning's Washington Post has a story on proposed legal challenges to the individual mandate in the pending health care legislation. (In brief, conservatives are arguing that Congress lacks the power to require people to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty, under either the commerce clause and the power to tax and spend for the general welfare.) The story observes that liberal-leaning constitutional scholars think that, as Erwin Chemerinsky puts it, "There are many close constitutional questions. But this is not among them," or, as Jack Balkin says, "All of these arguments don't work, but they're interesting to debate."

I'm afraid that these reactions demonstrate that liberal-leaning constitutional law types haven't absorbed the lessons of critical legal studies -- or, indeed, the lesson Justice William Brennan taught his law clerks by holding up one hand with his fingers splayed: "With five votes you can do anything." The CLS lesson was -- and is -- that where the stakes are high enough and the political energy is available (to lawyers and judges), at any time the body of legal materials contains enough stuff to support a professionally respectable argument for any legal proposition. So too with the constitutional arguments against the individual mandate.

I lack both the interest and the energy to work out the arguments in detail, but I've thought enough about the constitutional issues to be able to sketch out an argument, compatible with existing law, that the individual mandate (a) doesn't fall within Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce, (b) doesn't fall within Congress's power to tax and spend for the general welfare, and (c) is (in its penalty aspect) a direct tax prohibited by the Constitution. I myself don't find these arguments particularly strong, but that -- on the CLS view -- doesn't mean anything about what constitutional law on this matter "really" is. If, as Holmes said and as CLS reiterated, what the law "is" is what the courts will do in fact, the thing to do is to figure out which side of the argument can count to five first.

Or, put another way, remember Bush v. Gore?

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