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ACA Argument Postmortem


After going back and forth for a year I ended up being somewhat more pessimistic than a lot of liberal observers before the argument, so I perhaps wasn’t as shaken as they were. (I agree with Jon Cohn did the oral argument did not at all make it clear that Kennedy will vote to strike the ACA, although it made clear that he was seriously entertaining the possibility.) So I’m about where I was — it comes down to Kennedy, and I don’t see how anyone can claim to know what he’ll do. But I do think that some pundits, especially on the political side, misunderstood the role precedent will play in the case:

First of all, I think (particularly among political writers) there’s an important misunderstanding. Even if we concede that the ACA is unquestionably constitutional under the Court’s precedents—something that I don’t think is strictly accurate, although they strongly point in that direction—it’s important to remember that the Supreme Court is not bound by its own precedents. Lower courts are, and for that reason some of the District Court opinions striking down the ACA were embarrassingly feeble. But the Supreme Court does not violate any legal practice by limiting or overruling its own precedents. The law allows enough discretion for the Court to use its powers unwisely in this case, and it might. It is true that even if it is legally permitted to do so, the Supreme Court is very reluctant to overrule major precedents. Even after four decades of Republican-dominated Supreme Courts, the major precedents of the Warren and early Burger Courts remain good law. There is no question in my mind that if the argument being made against the ACA required the Supreme Court to overrule Wickard v. Filburn and return the country to a pre-New Deal conception of the Commerce Clause, it would not do so. But the genius of the argument concocted by the ACA’s opponents is that it does not require the Court to explicitly overrule any existing precedent. I think that the distinction between “activity” and “inactivity” is utterly nonsensical as applied to the healthcare market, and Steven Breyer did a good job of explaining why at yesterday’s oral argument. But it provides a way for the Court to strike down this particular bill without threatening the fundamental structure of the New Deal.

So nothing prevents the Court from striking the law if they want to, and a majority might want to. Hopefully Kennedy will step back from the brink.

Meanwhile, if you want to get into the weeds of the oral arguments, I probably don’t need to tell you this but Lithwick has been brilliant (day one, day two.)

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