Thomas and Scalia, the Commerce Clause, and the Healthcare Law

Justices Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, issued an interesting dissent yesterday to the Supreme Court's decision not to hear a challenge to a federal law making it a federal crime for a convicted felon to buy, own, or possess body armor (such as a bullet-proof vest) that had ever been sold in interstate or international commerce, even if the felon himself did not obtain it through interstate or international commerce. Congress passed the law as an exercise of the power granted it by the Constitution's Commerce Clause.

The rejected challenge in Alderman v. U.S. asserted that Congress had gone beyond the power granted to it by the Commerce Clause - the same argument that opponents of the landmark healthcare reform legislation have made. Since the constitutionality of the healthcare law under the Commerce Clause will likely be decided by the Supreme Court, Thomas and Scalia's dissent in this case may be a window into how they will rule in that case.

The Los Angeles Times gives one interpretation of the Court's decision:

The Supreme Court may not be so anxious to rein in Congress' broad power to pass regulatory laws under the Constitution's commerce clause, the key point of dispute in the pending court battles over President Obama's health insurance law. ...

The majority's decision, rendered without comment, could make it more difficult for those challenging health insurance reform to win court orders overturning parts of the new law. ...

Thomas referred to a pair of decisions, beginning in 1995, in which the court's conservatives, led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, sought to put clearer limits on Congress' power. ...

But since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. arrived in 2005, the court has not moved to restrain federal power.

A Justice can have any number of reasons for not wanting to hear a case — perhaps the Justice agrees with the lower court, or the issue is not important enough, or the facts of the case make it an inconvenient vehicle to discuss the legal issue, or there has not yet been enough debate among the circuit courts. As in this case, the public rarely knows why the Court voted not to grant cert.

For any of the Justices to voice their disagreement when cert is denied is unusual, and it suggests that they feel strongly about the issue at stake. In the body armor case, Justices Thomas and Scalia wrote:

Today the Court tacitly accepts the nullification of our recent Commerce Clause jurisprudence. Joining other Circuits, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [uses reasoning that] threatens the proper limits on Congress' commerce power and may allow Congress to exercise police powers that our Constitution reserves to the States. ...

[The lower courts’ interpretation of the Commerce Clause] seems to permit Congress to regulate or ban possession of any item that has ever been offered for sale or crossed state lines. Congress arguably could outlaw the theft of a Hershey kiss from a corner store in Youngstown, Ohio, by a neighborhood juvenile on the basis that the candy once traveled to the store from Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Such an expansion of federal authority would trespass on traditional state police powers. We always have rejected readings of the Commerce Clause and the scope of federal power that would permit Congress to exercise a police power.

While the dissent addresses this case alone, the fact that they issued it may reflect a strong desire to limit the scope of the Commerce Clause across the board. That would likely have an impact on the healthcare case when it reaches the Supreme Court. It may also signal their willingness to strike down acts of Congress that would unquestionably have been found constitutional in the past.

Historically, the Commerce Clause has been one of the most powerful tools that the American people have to impose reasonable regulations on giant corporations — and to hold them accountable when they do wrong. Justices Thomas and Scalia have been reliable supporters of Big Business on the Corporate Court. Any narrowing of the scope of the Commerce Clause needs to be viewed with caution.

PFAW