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Dissent scolds SCOTUS for “vast judicial overreaching”

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein

Earlier, I posted an abridged version of Chief Justice Roberts opinion upholding the individual mandate on taxing power grounds.

It’s worth highlighting some key parts of the dissent that push back against that argument.

As far as the text is concerned, it was a joint dissent from Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The justices write:

“It is important to bear this in mind in evaluating the tax argument of the Government and of those who support it: The issue is not whether Congress had the power to frame the minimum-coverage provision as a tax, but whether it did so.

“In answering that question we must, if ‘fairly possible,’ Crowell v. Benson, 285 U. S. 22, 62 (1932), construe the provision to be a tax rather than a mandate-with-penalty, since that would render it constitutional rather than unconstitutional (ut res magis valeat quam pereat). But we cannot  rewrite the statute to be what it  is  not. “ ‘ “[A]l- though this Court will often strain to construe legislation so as to save it against constitutional attack, it must not and will not carry this to the point of perverting the purpose of a statute . . .” or judicially rewriting it.’” … In this case, there is simply no way, “without doing violence to the fair meaning of the words used”…to escape what Congress enacted: a mandate that individuals maintain minimum essential coverage, enforced by a penalty.”

….

“In a few cases, this Court has held that a ‘tax’ imposed upon private conduct was so onerous as to be in effect a penalty. But we have never held—never—that a penalty imposed for violation of the law was so trivial as to be in effect a tax. We have never held that any exaction imposed for violation of the law is an exercise of Congress’ taxing power—even when the statute calls it a tax, much less when (as here) the statute repeatedly calls it a penalty. When an act ‘adopt[s] the criteria of wrongdoing’ and then imposes a monetary penalty as the ‘principal consequence on those who transgress its standard,’ it creates a regulatory penalty, not a tax.”

….

“That §5000A imposes not a simple tax but a mandate to which a penalty is attached is demonstrated by the fact that some are exempt from the tax who are not exempt from the mandate—a distinction that would make no sense if the mandate were not a mandate.”

….

“And the nail in the coffin is that the mandate and penalty are located in Title I of the Act, its operative core, rather than where a tax would be found—in Title IX, containing the Act’s ‘Revenue Provisions.’”

….

“For all these reasons, to say that the Individual Man- date merely imposes a tax is not to interpret the statute but to rewrite it. Judicial tax-writing is particularly troubling. Taxes have never been popular, see, e.g., Stamp Act of 1765, and in part for that reason, the Constitution requires tax increases to originate in the House of Representatives. See Art. I, §7, cl. 1. That is to say, they must originate in the legislative body most accountable to the people, where legislators must weigh the need for the tax against the terrible price they might pay at their next election, which is never more than two years off.”

….

“Imposing a tax through judicial legislation inverts the constitutional scheme, and places the power to tax in the branch of government least accountable to the citizenry.”

The dissent concludes with this blistering section:

The Court today decides to save a statute Congress did not write. It rules that what the statute declares to be a requirement with a penalty is instead an option subject to a tax. And it changes the intentionally coercive sanction of a total cut-off of Medicaid funds to a supposedly noncoercive cut-off of only the incremental funds that the Act makes available.
The Court regards its strained statutory interpretation as judicial modesty. It is not. It amounts instead to a vast judicial overreaching. It creates a debilitated, inoperable version of health-care regulation that Congress did not enact and the public does not expect. It makes enactment of sensible health-care regulation more difficult, since Congress cannot start afresh but must take as its point of departure a jumble of now senseless provisions, provisions that certain interests favored under the Court’s new design will struggle to retain. And it leaves the public and the States to expend vast sums of money on requirements that may or may not survive the necessary congressional revision.
The Court’s disposition, invented and atextual as it is, does not even have the merit of avoiding constitutional difficulties. It creates them. The holding that the Individual Mandate is a tax raises a difficult constitutional question (what is a direct tax?) that the Court resolves with inadequate deliberation. And the judgment on the Medicaid Expansion issue ushers in new federalism concerns and places an unaccustomed strain upon the Union. Those States that decline the Medicaid Expansion must subsidize, by the federal tax dollars taken from their citizens, vast grants to the States that accept the Medicaid Expansion. If that destabilizing political dynamic, so antagonistic to a harmonious Union, is to be introduced at all, it should be by Congress, not by the Judiciary.
The values that should have determined our course to- day are caution, minimalism, and the understanding that the Federal Government is one of limited powers. But the Court’s ruling undermines those values at every turn. In the name of restraint, it overreaches. In the name of constitutional avoidance, it creates new constitutional questions. In the name of cooperative federalism, it undermines state sovereignty.
The Constitution, though it dates from the founding of the Republic, has powerful meaning and vital relevance to our own times. The constitutional protections that this case involves are protections of structure. Structural protections—notably, the restraints imposed by federalism and separation of powers—are less romantic and have less obvious a connection to personal freedom than the provisions of the Bill of Rights or the Civil War Amendments. Hence they tend to be undervalued or even forgotten by our citizens. It should be the responsibility of the Court to teach otherwise, to remind our people that the Framers considered structural protections of freedom the most important ones, for which reason they alone were embodied in the original Constitution and not left to later amendment. The fragmentation of power produced by the structure of our Government is central to liberty, and when we destroy it, we place liberty at peril. Today’s decision should have vindicated, should have taught, this truth; instead, our judgment today has disregarded it.
For the reasons here stated, we would find the Act in- valid in its entirety. We respectfully dissent.

There’s been some interesting (and plausible) speculation that the dissent may have actually been written as the majority opinion at some point in the process. Allahpundit does a good job parsing the theories here.

 

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