Symeon Symeonides pondered a moment, then said he had no idea how the U.S. Supreme Court would rule on the constitutionality of the Obama health care law, especially the individual mandate requiring every citizen to have health insurance. The high court will hear arguments in the case next week.
An internationally renowned constitutional law scholar, as well as one of Salem's best-kept secrets, Symeonides said it might be easier for states like Oregon to impose a health insurance buying mandate than for the federal government to do so. After all, he said, Massachusetts passed a mandate a few years ago and it appears to be working — though Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would rather kick the issue to the background.
Symeonides and I, along with Willamette Law School's development director, Mike Bennett, sat down for a drink last week to reflect on the Supreme Court case, which stands to be one of the most significant in years, perhaps even rivaling the abortion or desegregation decisions. It was only about a week before Symeonides headed off to Brussels, where he will be working for several months to advise the European Union on how to draft a new constitution.
If states found the political wherewithal to impose an individual mandate — and Symeonides, ever an astute observer of political winds, thinks that could be a tall order — it might be easier legally because it wouldn't run up against the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause. Under Article 1, the clause gives Congress "the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, as well as Indian tribes." The outcome of the court case rests, at least in part, on how current justices interpret the commerce clause and whether regulating commerce "among the several states" allows for an individual health insurance mandate.
The New York Times published an article last week, with the headline, "At Heart of Health Law Clash, a 1942 Case of a Farmer's Wheat."
"If the Obama Administration persuades the Supreme Court to uphold its health care overhaul law, it will be in large part thanks to a 70-year-old precedent involving an Ohio farmer named Roscoe C. Filburn."
Seems that Mr. Filburn sued to overturn a 1938 law that told him how much wheat he could grow on his property and imposed a penalty on him if he grew too much. The Court ruled against Mr. Filburn, and that ruling serves as the pivot for what the justices will begin considering next week. The Times says interpretations of the Filburn case may form the basis for decisions by the two current-day justices who are considered the swing votes in this case, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.