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Commandeering the People: Why the Individual Health Insurance Mandate is Unconstitutional


Randy E. Barnett


Georgetown University Law Center

September 21, 2010

NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol. 5, 2010
Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-58

Abstract:     
The “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” includes what is called an “individual responsibility requirement” or mandate that all persons buy health insurance from a private company and a separate “penalty” enforcing this requirement. In this paper, I do not critique the individual mandate on originalist grounds. Instead, I explain why the individual mandate is unconstitutional under the existing doctrine by which the Supreme Court construes the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses and the tax power. There are three principal claims.

First (Part II), since the New Deal, the Supreme Court has developed a doctrine allowing the regulation of wholly intrastate activity: the substantial effects doctrine. Although commonly conceived as a Commerce Clause doctrine, from its inception this doctrine has been grounded in the Necessary and Proper Clause. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court developed a judicially administrable test for whether it is “necessary” for Congress to reach intrastate activity that substantially affects interstate commerce: the distinction between economic and noneconomic intrastate activity. Because the individual mandate fails to satisfy the requirements of this test as understood under existing doctrine, it exceeds the power granted to Congress by the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses as currently construed by the Supreme Court. The mandate also fails to satisfy an alternative to the substantial effects doctrine that was proposed by Justice Scalia in a concurring opinion.

Second (Part III), because the “individual responsibility requirement” purports to be a regulation of commerce and cannot possibly be construed as a tax, it is not justified under the tax power of Congress; and, if the “requirement” or mandate is an unconstitutional regulation, there is nothing for the “penalty” to enforce. Neither is the penalty, considered apart from the regulatory requirement, a tax under current doctrine.

Third (Part IV), the Supreme Court should not further expand Congress’s power beyond existing doctrine to allow it to mandate that individuals engage in economic activity by entering into contracts with private companies. Such economic mandates are directly analogous to the commandeering of the states that the Supreme Court has held to be an improper exercise of the commerce power. The very few mandates that are imposed on the people pertain to their fundamental duties as citizens of the United States, such as the duty to defend the country or to pay for its operation. A newfound congressional power to impose economic mandates to facilitate the regulation of interstate commerce would fundamentally alter the relationship of citizen and state by unconstitutionally commandeering the people.

In Part V, I conclude with a “realist” assessment of the likelihood that the Supreme Court will actually find the mandate to be unconstitutional.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 58

Keywords: constitutional law, constitutional interpretation, originalism, health insurance, health care reform

JEL Classification: K00, K19, K32, I11, I18

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Date posted: September 22, 2010 ; Last revised: February 16, 2011

Suggested Citation

Barnett, Randy E., Commandeering the People: Why the Individual Health Insurance Mandate is Unconstitutional (September 21, 2010). NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol. 5, 2010; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-58. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1680392

Contact Information

Randy E. Barnett (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9936 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.randybarnett.com
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