In the first Affordable Care Act case three years ago, the Supreme Court had to decide whether Congress had the power, under the Commerce Clause or some other source of authority, to require individuals to buy health insurance. It was a question that went directly to the structure of American government and the allocation of power within the federal system.
The court very nearly got the answer wrong with an exceedingly narrow reading of Congress’s commerce power. As everyone remembers, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., himself a member of the anti-Commerce Clause five, saved the day by declaring that the penalty for not complying with the individual mandate was actually a tax, properly imposed under Congress’s tax power.
I thought the court was seriously misguided in denying Congress the power under the Commerce Clause to intervene in a sector of the economy that accounts for more than 17 percent of the gross national product. But even I have to concede that the debate over structure has deep roots in the country’s history and a legitimate claim on the Supreme Court’s attention. People will be debating it as long as the flag waves.
But the new Affordable Care Act case, King v. Burwell, to be argued four weeks from now, is different, a case of statutory, not constitutional, interpretation. The court has permitted itself to be recruited into the front lines of a partisan war. Not only the Affordable Care Act but the court itself is in...
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