At first, few constitutional experts took seriously the argument that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act exceeded Congress's power under the commerce clause. The highly political opinions of two federal district judges — carefully chosen by challenging plaintiffs — of no particular distinction did not shake that confidence that the act was constitutional. This disdain for the challengers' arguments was only confirmed when the act was upheld by two highly respected conservative court of appeals judges in two separate circuits. But after the hostile, even mocking questioning of the government's advocate in the Supreme Court by the five Republican-appointed justices, the expectation was that the act would indeed be struck down on that ground. So it came as no surprise when the five opined the act did indeed exceed Congress's commerce clause power. But it came as a great surprise when Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by the four Democrat-appointed justices, ruled that the act could be sustained as an exercise of Congress's taxing power — a ground urged by the government almost as an afterthought. It was further surprising, even shocking, that Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito not only wrote a joint opinion on the commerce clause virtually identical to that of their chief, but that in writing it they did not refer to or even acknowledge his opinion. Finally surprising was the fact that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined the chief in holding that aspects of the act's Medicaid expansion were unconstitutional. This essay ponders and tries to unravel some of these puzzles.
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Charles Fried; The June Surprises: Balls, Strikes, and the Fog of War. J Health Polit Policy Law 1 April 2013; 38 (2): 225–241. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03616878-1966225
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