Washington “I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”
— Barack Obama, on the constitutional challenge to his health care law, April 2
“Unprecedented”? Judicial review has been the centerpiece of the American constitutional system since Marbury v. Madison in 1803. “Strong majority”? The House has 435 members. In March 2010, Democrats held a 75-seat majority. Obamacare passed by seven votes.
In his next-day walk back, the president implied that he was merely talking about the normal “restraint and deference” the courts owe the legislative branch. This concern would be touching if it weren’t coming from the leader of a party so deeply devoted to the ultimate judicial usurpation — Roe v. Wade, which struck down the abortion laws of 46 states — that fealty to it is the party’s litmus test for service on the Supreme Court.
With Obamacare remaking one-sixth of the economy, it would be unusual for the Supreme Court to overturn legislation so broad and sweeping. On the other hand, it is far more unusual to pass such a fundamentally transformative law on such a narrow, partisan basis.
Obamacare passed the Congress without a single vote from the opposition party — in contradistinction to Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, similarly grand legislation, all of which enjoyed substantial bipartisan support. In the Senate, moreover, Obamacare squeaked by through a parliamentary maneuver called reconciliation that was never intended for anything so sweeping. The fundamental deviation from custom and practice is not the legal challenge to Obamacare but the very manner of its enactment.
The president’s pre-emptive attack on the court was in direct reaction to Obamacare’s three days of oral argument. It was a shock. After years of contemptuously dismissing the very idea of a legal challenge, Democrats suddenly realized there actually is a serious constitutional argument to be made against Obamacare — and they are losing it.
Here were highly sophisticated conservative thinkers — lawyers and justices — making the case for limited government, and liberals weren’t even prepared for the obvious constitutional question: If Congress can force the individual into a private contract by authority of the Commerce Clause, what can it not force the individual to do? Without a limiting principle, the central premise of our constitutional system — a government of enumerated powers — evaporates. What then is the limiting principle?
Liberals were quick to blame the administration’s bumbling solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, for blowing the answer. But Clarence Darrow couldn’t have given it. There is none.
Justice Stephen Breyer tried to rescue the hapless Verrilli by suggesting that by virtue of being born, one enters into the “market for health care.” To which plaintiffs’ lawyer Michael Carvin devastatingly replied: If birth means entering the market, the Congress is omnipotent, authorized by the Commerce Clause to regulate “every human activity from cradle to grave.”
Having lost the argument, what to do? Bully. The New York Times loftily warned the Supreme Court that it would forfeit its legitimacy if it ruled against Obamacare because with the “five Republican-appointed justices supporting the challenge led by 26 Republican governors, the court will mark itself as driven by politics.”
Really? The administration’s case for the constitutionality of Obamacare was so thoroughly demolished in oral argument that one liberal observer called it “a train wreck.” It is perfectly natural, therefore, that a majority of the court should side with the argument that had so clearly prevailed on its merits. That’s not partisanship. That’s logic. Partisanship is four Democrat-appointed justices giving lockstep support to a law passed by a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president — after the case for its constitutionality had been reduced to rubble.
Democrats are reeling. Obama was so taken aback, he hasn’t even drawn up contingency plans should his cherished reform be struck down. Liberals still cannot grasp what’s happened — the mild revival of constitutionalism in a country they’ve grown so used to ordering about regardless. When asked about Obamacare’s constitutionality, Nancy Pelosi famously replied: “Are you serious?” She was genuinely puzzled.
As was Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill. As Michael Barone notes, when Hare was similarly challenged at a 2010 town hall, he replied: “I don’t worry about the Constitution.” Hare is now retired, having been shortly thereafter defeated for re-election by the more constitutionally attuned owner of an East Moline pizza shop.