O Christmas Tree: Why Scalia’s Dissent is More Activist Than the Roberts Decision

By Mike Konczal |

Roberts’s decision to uphold the individual mandate as a tax was based on solid and established legal arguments, but the dissent’s justification for throwing the whole law out was pure radicalism.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You’re telling me they thought of it as a tax, they defended it on the tax power. Why didn’t they say it was a tax?

GENERAL VERRILLI: They might have thought, Your Honor, that calling it a penalty as they did would make it more effective in accomplishing its objective. But it is — in the Internal Revenue Code it is collected by the IRS on April 15th. I don’t think this is a situation in which you can say –
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, that’s the reason. They thought it might be more effective if they called it a penalty.
-Supreme Court arguments, March 27th, 2012 (transcript)

Last week, the Supreme Court found in a 5-4 vote that the individual mandate survives under the taxing power instead of the Commerce Clause. Here is the decision, authored by Chief Justice Roberts. I’ve noticed two responses from conservatives:

The first is that Roberts, by looking to the taxing power in the Constitution, found something liberals had never argued. Related is the argument that liberals took the constitutionality of the mandate for granted and never built out the framework necessary to argue for it, especially in the form of a tax.

I haven’t followed health care closely, but I do try to keep up with Jack Balkin’s work, and he’s been on the taxing power since forever ago. Here’s two amicus briefs (h/t Incidental Economist for the actual brief links, who also gives them “most influential” status) that come from the team of Jack Balkin at Yale Law School and Gillian Metzger and Trevor Morrison at Columbia Law School. Their Fourth Circuit brief covers this (Argument 1: “The minimum coverage free provision is a permissible exercise of Congress’s taxing power”), as does the Supreme Court brief (Argument 1: “The minimum coverage provision falls within Congress’s expansive tax power and is not an impermissible direct tax”).

In “The Lawfulness of Health-Care Reform,” Akhil Amar writes that Obamacare “is proper under at least six different theories, each one of which has deep roots in constitutional text and common sense.” The very first one? “It is outlandish to think that [Obamacare’s] provisions exceed the sweeping power that the Constitution confers upon Congress to ‘lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises.'” And Andrew Koppelman, in “Bad News for Mail Robbers: The Obvious Constitutionality of Health Care Reform,” noted that “Even if you somehow suppose that the health care mandate exceeds the commerce power, it would be valid anyway as an exercise of the power to tax,” which is now the law of the land. These thinkers are at the forefront of elite liberal legal scholarship, and they all made this argument. It showed up in the oral arguments as well, with Roberts paying particular attention to it, as Brian Beutler of TPM caught at the time.

The second response conservatives have is that Roberts found something Congress never intended. National Review‘s editors, immediately after the decision, argued that one “distinguishes, though, between construing a law charitably and rewriting it. The latter is what Chief Justice John Roberts has done.” The dissent itself argues that “to say that the Individual Mandate merely imposes a tax is not to interpret the statute but to rewrite it.”

But in terms of rewriting a bill and judicial activism, I haven’t seem any conservatives deal with the “Christmas Tree” doctrine. Given that the dissenting judges found the mandate and related major parts of the bill unconstitutional, what should they do with the rest of the bill? For instance, what should be done about the student loan reform, a major and obviously constitutional provision that was included with the ACA?

The dissenting judges would overturn it. They’d overturn the entire bill, including the student loan provisions. But why? Here is their logic, from the dissent (my bold):

Such [minor] provisions validate the Senate Majority Leader’s statement, “‘I don’t know if there is a senator that doesn’t have something in this bill that was important to them. . . . [And] if they don’t have something in it important to them, then it doesn’t speak well of them.  That’s what this legislation is all about: It’s the art of compromise.’ ” [Quote from New York Times article.] Often, a minor provision will be the price paid for support of a major provision.  So, if the major provision were unconstitutional, Congress would not have passed the minor one.

The Court has not previously had occasion to consider severability in the context of an omnibus enactment like the ACA, which includes not only many provisions that are ancillary to its central provisions but also many that are entirely unrelated—hitched on because it was a quick way to get them passed despite opposition, or because their proponents could exact their enactment as the quid pro quo for their needed support. 
When we are confronted with such a so called “Christmas tree,” a law to which many nongermane ornaments have been attached, we think the proper rule must be that when the tree no longer exists the ornaments are superfluous. We have no reliable basis for knowing which pieces of the Act would have passed on their own.

Notice how this dissent comes up with an elaborate theory of how and why Congress passed the pieces of the bill they did, rewriting the history of how and why health care reform passed. With no previous case law, they turn to a quote from a New York Times article, of all things, to determine the constitutionality of things like student loan reform.

And this history strikes me as ideologically predicated on a third-rate “Public Choice” criticism, which is that all the minor provisions were “quid pro quo” bribes needed to secure passage. It reads like when Scalia brought up the Cornhusker Kickback during legal arguments. So it isn’t derived from case law, or a theory of the courts or the law, but on an ideological, right-wing vision of how political actors behave.

Which is to say that the dissent took a maximal course of rewriting and assuming not only the intent but the counterfactual of congressional action and the ACA, including what it does, why it does it, and how it came to be, in their Christmas Tree doctrine. This is the very definition of judicial activism.

If Roberts was interested in minimizing his activism and rewriting of congressional action, as well as maintaining a baseline of presuming the legitmacy and constitutionality of congressional action, wouldn’t he have gone with the liberals instead of the conservative dissent?

Now that CBS News has revealed that Roberts changed his vote from siding with the conservatives to siding with the liberals, everyone is trying to figure out why. I wonder if it is because the dissenters wouldn’t back down from their Christmas Tree doctrine and Roberts called foul on its absurdity.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.