The Constitution's "Police Power," Including Tort Law, Isn't Subject to Federal Authority

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The Supreme Court's decision in the Obamacare case (Acrobat document) highlighted the limits of federal authority over states' and individual rights. Over and over again, Chief Justice Roberts wrote of the Constitution's enumerated powers for the federal government and of the need to protect states from an overreaching federal government. He defined states' rights in terms of the inherent "police power" which is reserved for the states. Here is a key quote:

The Constitution may restrict state governments--as it does, for example, by forbidding them to deny any person the equal protection of the laws. But where such prohibitions do not apply, state governments do not need constitutional authorization to act. The States thus can and do perform many of the vital functions of modern government--punishing street crime, running public schools, and zoning property for development, to name but a few--even though the Constitution's text does not authorize any government to do so. Our cases refer to this general power of governing, possessed by the States but not by the Federal Government, as the 'police power.' See, e.g., United States v. Morrison, 529 U. S. 598, 618-619 (2000).

And Justice Roberts was unwilling to enable the federal government to mandate the purchase of health insurance under the Commerce Clause, in contradiction to the "police power" of the states.

"The Commerce Clause is not a general license to regulate an individual from cradle to grave, simply because he will predictably engage in particular transactions. Any police power to regulate individuals as such, as opposed to their activities, remains vested in the States... The Government argues that the individual mandate can be sustained as a sort of exception to this rule, because health insurance is a unique product... The proximity and degree of connection between the mandate and the subsequent commercial activity is too lacking to justify an exception of the sort urged by the Government. The individual mandate forces individuals into commerce precisely because they elected to refrain from commercial activity. Such a law cannot be sustained under a clause authorizing Congress to 'regulate Commerce.'"

Justice Roberts cited the U.S. v Morrison case, in which then-Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote several times that the Constitution reserved the "police power" to the states, and quoted from the Supreme Court's ruling in the U.S. v Lopez case: "[W]e always have rejected readings of the Commerce Clause and the scope of federal power that would permit Congress to exercise a police power."

Paul Clement, who argued the case against Obamacare before the Court, also asserted that "the police power resides with the states" in a debate at the 2011 Federalist Society national convention. In the brief filed for the State of Florida before the Court, he asserted that the Constitution "reserves the plenary police power to the states" (page 17 of the brief).

So what is included under the umbrella of the constitutional "police power?" Well, one of the Republicans' favorite legal experts and anti-Obamacare theorists says that tort law is a "police power" not subject to federal authority:

Prof. Randy Barnett, in May 2011: "But tort law -- the body of rules by which persons seek damages for injuries to their person and property -- has always been regulated by states, not the federal government. Tort law is at the heart of what is called the 'police power' of states... Indeed, if Congress now can regulate tort law, which has always been at the core of state powers, then Congress, and not the states, has a general police power."

And other top Republican, anti-Obamacare constitutional experts clearly agree with Prof. Barnett's conclusion that Congress has no business regulating tort law through, for instance, federal limits on awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, in November 2011, writing about a Senate bill to cap awards in medical malpractice cases: "The legislation is breathtakingly broad in its assumptions about federal power, particularly the same power to regulate commerce that lies at the heart of all the lawsuits (including Virginia's) against the individual mandate of the 2010 federal health-care law... This legislation expands federal power, tramples the states and violates the Constitution."

Sen. Mike Lee on Fox Business Network in March: "It's the states that license and regulate health care, health insurance companies. It's the states that come up with the system of tort laws that govern medical malpractice lawsuits."

Prof. John Baker, in June 2011: "To justify their efforts to nationalize medical malpractice law, House Republicans are stretching the Supreme Court's New Deal Commerce Clause jurisprudence almost as far as Democrats did for Obamacare."

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Action Network, in October 2011: "The law's own justification for its constitutional authority should be chilling to anyone committed to limited federal power... Congress would be nationalizing purely local activity because state-by-state solutions would require a lot of resources and hard work."

Rob Natelson, writing about the Founders' intentions in the Constitution in his monograph titled, 'The Roots of Judicial Federalism': "Reserved to the states would be nearly all the authority they had exercised previously, including power over state court procedures and over existing areas of substantive jurisdiction. With a few exceptions, therefore, the states were left in exclusive possession of the law of torts, contracts, inheritance, property, and criminal law."

So there's no argument among top Republican experts - tort law just isn't a federal issue, and the Obamacare decision only made that point perfectly clear.

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This page contains a single entry by Andrew Cochran published on July 18, 2012 10:49 AM.

Tea Party Leader Challenges Texas Tort Reform was the previous entry in this blog.

Evangelical College Requests Jury Trial in Obamacare Lawsuit is the next entry in this blog.

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