Category Archives: Law: The Supremes

When Is a Tax Not a Tax?

The Supreme Court has upheld the very large majority of the health care bill. In particular, it upheld the individual mandate 5-4 (with Roberts, without Kennedy) on the grounds that it is a tax — having rejected it as a valid application of the Commerce Clause.

But for purposes of the anti-Injunction Act (always my favorite grounds for decision, but pretty clearly not a winner after its reception below not to mention the oral argument and the Administration’s attempt to disclaim the argument), the individual mandate is not a tax.

That sounds odd. But the opinions are long, and I need to read them to see how that happened.

Update: The answer seems to be statutory interpretation — Congress gets to say when things (tax or not) are covered by the anti-injunction act, and the five Justices in the majority don’t see Congress as intending that result here given the choice of the word “penalty” for the mandate’s fines while “tax” was used elsewhere. The principle asserted is that for Constitutional purposes the Court must look through Congressional labels to see what things really are, but that for statutory interpretation involving the interplay of different statutes, in principle Congress gets to call things whatever it likes and here the Court is reading in the not-a-tax-for-anti-injunction-purposes meaning from the statutory word choices.

Posted in Law: Constitutional Law, Law: The Supremes | Leave a comment

It’s SCOTUSBlog’s Health Care Moment

Like much of the US legal world, I’ll be following the liveblog at SCOTUSBlog this morning to see what the Supreme Court does to representative government. SCOTUSBlog says they spent $25,000 just beefing it up to handle the slashdotting they expect to get around 10am today.

Fortunately, there’s a way to turn off the horrible little clicking noise their liveblog makes ever time one of the participants posts something.

I don’t know if I’ll have anything to say about the decision after it issues; that depends in part on what it says. Given the mountain of instant commentary there surely will be, I rather suspect I may not have much to add.

On pure precedent, the case should be a no-brainer for upholding the statute. The strongest case for anything less is that Wickard, one of the best cases for upholding it, is something of an outlier. It’s possible to see Wickard as an unwelcome guest at the Commerce Clause table, as the rule in that case seems so broad that there are almost no limits on the Commerce Clause. My own view, however, is that even without Wickard, the health care law passes muster because I think Chief Justice Marshall set us on that path when he tied the Commerce Clause’s reach to the reach of the national market. As the nation’s markets have become truly national in more and more areas, Congressional power has, I believe, grown with it.

I am not that interested in the debate over whether this is what the Framers, or the Ratifiers, expected. I think that John Marshall’s views in this area have become, and should be, authoritative and are hallowed by time even if they may have represented something of a Federalist coup (or time bomb) when delivered. I would say the same about Marbury v. Madison. I do not mean to suggest here that Marshall’s views can never be overruled, only that there has yet been no good reason to do so, and this is not it. Indeed, principles of subsidiarity counsel that national issues should be regulated nationally; health care is clearly such an issue given its economic impact and the national effect of both failures of health care (e.g. epidemics) and of health care financing.

A purely political ruling, whatever its nature, would be a sad thing for the Nation. We have in the past decade or so eaten a great deal of our moral and intellectual seed corn, a fact reflected in poll results showing declining confidence in our institutions. Bush v. Gore has made me unwilling to teach Constitutional Law, and makes even Administrative Law harder at root. Legitimation is valuable; legitimation crises are painful.

Posted in Law: The Supremes | 5 Comments

Oral Argument in Golan Case

The Supreme Court has posted the transcript of today’s (!) oral argument in Golan v. Holder, the case about the constitutionality of taking works out of the public domain and extending copyright protection to them.

It’s an unusually good argument on all three sides (2 advocates and the court), but I think that Anthony T. Falzone’s effort for the Petitioners was especially impressive.

Posted in Law: Copyright and DMCA, Law: The Supremes | 2 Comments

Statutory Interpretation for Biologists

Tongue no doubt firmly in cheek, a biologist suggests that the Florida legislature accidentally legislated celibacy this week.

Among (many) other things, the statute in question says that

A person may not:

Knowingly engage in any sexual conduct or sexual contact with an animal;

(In its infinite wisdom, the Florida Legislature had never before the current moment gotten around to legislating on this important subject.)

People are animals, hence sex with humans must be banned, right?

Any blog post that makes fun of this year’s unusually dire Florida Legislature is OK with me, but I have to put in a few words for the law here, even at the price of spoiling the joke.

Yes, it’s time to roll out Nix v. Heddon, 149 U.S. 304 (1893), in which the Supreme Court of the United States had to decide whether at tomato is a fruit or a vegetable for purposes of the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883. There were good arguments for ‘fruit’: after all, to a biologist, a tomato is clearly a fruit. But the Supreme Court made short work of that claim:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

In short, in figuring out legislative intent in the absence of a definition in the statute itself, courts look to the ordinary, common, meaning of words and not their scientific meaning unless something in the context suggests otherwise. In SB 344, it’s pretty clear that when the Florida legislature — yes, even this year’s model — says “animals” it is not referring to us nor even to itself.

Posted in Florida, Law: Everything Else, Law: The Supremes | 6 Comments

Zoopreme Court

Have a look at Zoopreme Court. Here’s a sample, Warren E. Bearger (Chief Justice 1969 – 1986):

Posted in Law: The Supremes | 2 Comments

Justice Thomas’s Disclosure Problem

Crooks & Liars goes to town on the unfolding Supreme Court disclosure scandal: Clarence Thomas “Forgot” 20 Years of Disclosure? Really?. The author argues that there might even be felony exposure under 18 USC § 1001. I’m a little dubious, although it’s not the sort of law I do so I welcome comments from those who know this stuff.

And even if it’s theoretically right, there’s surely about a zero percent chance that the Obama Justice Department would act, or that the Tea Party House would indict.

Although I have to say that this all reminds me of the classic Steve Martin routine


(Apologies for the silly cartoon version, but it is all I could find on YouTube.)

Posted in Law: Ethics, Law: The Supremes | Leave a comment