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Why the Courts Must Presume that Economic Legislation is Constitutional

by Professor Will Huhn on April 6, 2012

in Constitutional Law,Health Care,Separation of Powers,Wilson Huhn

In yesterday's post I cited abundant authority in support of the principle that the courts must defer to the judgment of Congress in reviewing the constitutionality of economic legislation. Decisions under the Due Process, Equal Protection Clause, Spending Clause, and Commerce Clause all reveal the same idea, that the courts lack the power to second-guess the political branches in the determination of national economic policy.

I promised that today I would explain why the courts lack that power. There are two reasons. First, the courts are not institutionally equipped to undertake the complex analysis necessary to the establishment of economic policy. Second, the courts are not democratically authorized to balance and compromise the economic interests of different segments of our society.

Both of these points were made in Part III of the amicus brief that I submitted to the Supreme Court on behalf of a committee of professors in the health care case. For the second point regarding the compromise among economic interests we are indebted to a member of the committee, Professor David S. Cohen of the Earle Mack School of Law, Drexel University. Part III of the brief is reproduced below:


In deciding whether to enact the individual mandate as part of the PPACA, Congress had to consider a host of interrelated factors including the following: the cost of health care in the United States; the cost of health insurance; the extent of out-of-pocket expenses for health care; the increase in the cost of health insurance relative to increases in personal income and the cost of living; the absolute and relative cost borne by persons in different income groups; the extent and effect of cost-shifting under current law; and the number and effect of personal bankruptcies attributable to the cost of health care. Most importantly, Congress had to assess the state of the nationâs health and the effect of the lack of adequate insurance upon peopleâs health.

In deciding whether the nationâs system of paying for medical care ought to be reformed, Congress also had to evaluate the cost and effectiveness of current federally funded programs, including Medicare, 42 U.S.C. §1395, Medicaid, 42 U.S.C. §1396, the National Health Service Corps, 42 U.S.C. §254d, the Veterans Health Administration, 38 U.S.C. §7401, and federally funded community health centers, 42 U.S.C. §254b. For purposes of comparison, Congress had to familiarize itself with the details of the health care delivery systems in other countries as well as the relative cost and efficacy of those programs. Once again, a prime consideration was whether the people of other countries enjoy better health than American citizens.

Congress also had to predict the likely effect of the PPACA on all of the previously mentioned cost and health factors. Specifically, Congress sought to anticipate the likely effect of insurance reforms, including guaranteed issue regardless of health; guaranteed coverage of preexisting conditions; complete coverage for preventive care; coverage for adult children; and minimum medical loss ratios. It had to determine the level of federal subsidies to individuals and families of different income groups that would be necessary to enable them to purchase health insurance and offset out-of-pocket expenses; the future cost of federal contributions to the states that would be necessary to pay for the expansion of Medicaid; and the extent and mix of tax increases and spending reductions that would be necessary to pay for these reforms.

In keeping with our constitutional tradition that the states have served as laboratories for experimentation in governing, Congress also examined the efficacy of health insurance reform in the various states and modeled the PPACA after the plan that was adopted in Massachusetts in 2006, Mass. St. 2006, c. 58 (An Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality, Accountable Health Care).

In making these determinations Congress had at its disposal an array of economic studies from various sources, including the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Office of the Actuary of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Congressional Budget office, the Joint Commission on Taxation, the Commonwealth Fund, the Organisation for Economic and Cooperative Development, the World Health Organization of the United Nations, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Families USA. Congress also was free to consider the voluminous literature published by health care economists as well as their testimony before Congress.

All of the foregoing economic factors had to be considered in designing this complex, comprehensive scheme of legislation. In the words of the District Court below, the various elements of the PPACA are a âfinely crafted watch,â containing âapproximately 450 separate pieces,â many if not most of which are interrelated and interdependent. Florida v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 780 F.Supp.2d 1256, 1304 (N.D. Fla. 2010). Congress had to choose not only from a competing set of economic models and theories but also had to decide how to combine the hundreds of moving parts of this Act into a comprehensive and unified scheme of economic regulation. This was a matter of legislative prerogative and is beyond judicial competency.

In the exercise of its lawmaking function, Congress is not only permitted but expected to take economic data and expert economic opinion into account in determining whether to enact a system of universal health care coverage and in deciding what form that system should take. While judges as individuals are as capable as legislators at understanding and acting upon this information, it is incompatible with their judicial role to bring these considerations to the interpretation of the Constitution. The role of the courts is limited to determining whether Congress had a rational basis for enacting a particular plan of economic legislation.

In our brief we cited a dozen economic studies that bear upon the economic judgments that Congress had to consider in drafting this legislation. We could have cited hundreds.

Generations of Americans have struggled to achieve a program of universal health care. Health care providers, health insurers, consumer advocates, non-profit think tanks, and government agencies have researched this issue for decades and produced mountains of data. The issue has repeatedly come before Congress consuming vast amounts of political energy. (It bears repeating that the model of the "individual mandate" has been a Republican idea for nearly twenty years; the Party abandoned it only when Democrats embraced it after the 2008 election. Until then no-one thought of it as unconstitutional.) Congress worked on this specific legislation for over a year. The law contains over 450 separate provisions, most of which are intertwined and interdependent.

In contrast, the Supreme Court has undertaken review of this law only a few months ago as one case in a particularly full caseload. Even without the health care case this would be a challenging year for the Court to clear its docket. It is understandable – though still alarming – that at oral argument some members of the Court exhibited confusion regarding what was in the law and how the health insurance market works. That confusion reinforces the constitutional principle that under the doctrine of Separation of Powers, economic policy is the province of the political branches, not the judicial branch.

When the courts consider the constitutionality of laws that affect fundamental rights the presumption of constitutionality disappears. The courts are appropriately skeptical of legislation that affects fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to privacy, or the right of self-defense. But when the courts undertake to review the constitutionality of measures that are designed to adjust economic realities and reassign economic rights and responsibilities, their role is extremely limited, and for good reason. The federal courts do not democratically represent the economic interests of American society. That role is assigned to Congress and the President.

Congress had a rational basis for believing that Americans' lack of access to affordable health care is substantially affecting interstate commerce, and it had a rational basis for believing that the individual mandate is necessary to carry out the plan of universal coverage enacted in the PPACA. The law is constitutional.

Wilson Huhn teaches Constitutional Law at The University of Akron School of Law.