Why Chief Justice Roberts’s Opinion in NFIB v. Sebelius May Ultimately Advance Economic Freedom and Promote Limited-Government and Federalism Values

By Cause of Action Staff

Although at first blush it may appear that Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion in NFIB v. Sebelius upholding the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate will lead to a dramatic expansion of federal regulatory authority, proponents of economic freedom, federalism, and limited government may be surprised to learn that Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion reaffirmed and strengthened important limits on the scope of federal power.

First, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the Commerce Clause—even as augmented by the Necessary and Proper Clause—does not allow Congress to regulate inactivity:  “The Court today holds that our Constitution protects us from federal regulation under the Commerce Clause so long as we abstain from the regulated activity.”   (The four dissenting Justices—Scalia, Alito, Kennedy, and Thomas—agreed.)  Second, Chief Justice Roberts—joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan—concluded that the Medicaid expansion was unconstitutional, reasoning that the portion of the law requiring the States to “either accept a basic change in the nature of Medicaid, or risk losing all Medicaid funding,” exceeded limits on Congress’s Spending Clause authority.  (The four dissenting Justices reached the same conclusion.)  He not only reaffirmed the principle that “Congress has no authority to order the States to regulate according to its instructions” but placed a new limit on Congress’s exercise of its Spending Clause powers:  Congress can no longer use “coercive” financial incentives to compel States to adopt changes that it wants.  Chief Justice Roberts went so far as to describe the Medicaid expansion as “a gun to the head” of the States and “economic dragooning” that is contrary to our system of federalism and principles of dual sovereignty.

With that said, Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion in NFIB v. Sebelius leaves open important questions that the Court may be required to answer in subsequent cases:

(1)  Although Chief Justice Roberts noted that “Congress’s ability to use its taxing power to influence conduct is not without limits,” it is unclear what those limits are.

(2)  It is uncertain whether Chief Justice Roberts’s conclusion that the individual mandate was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause is part of the Court’s holding (and thus binding precedent) or merely dicta that other courts may ignore.

(3)  It remains to be seen whether the fact that a majority of the Court believed that the individual mandate exceeded Congress’s Commerce Clause authority indicates a willingness to revisit—and scale back—prior case law interpreting Congress’s authority under that clause expansively.

(4) The extent to which Chief Justice Roberts’s new limiting principle for Congress’s use of its Spending Clause power will leave other federal statutes conditioning receipt of federal money on States adopting federal regulatory and policy mandates vulnerable to constitutional challenge is unclear.

Finally, it is worth briefly noting that Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion upholding the individual mandate should not be read as a ringing endorsement of the Affordable Care Act but rather as an invitation for “We the People”—the ultimate sovereign in our constitutional system of limited government—to resolve the issue through the democratic process:

The Framers created a Federal Government of limited powers, and assigned to this Court the duty of enforcing those limits. The Court does so today. But the Court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act. Under the Constitution, that judgment is reserved to the people.