Crediting/Blaming the VC for the Possible Defeat of the Individual Mandate

Adam Teicholz of the Atlantic claims that the Volokh Conspiracy deserves much of the credit or blame for the possible upcoming defeat of the individual mandate in the Supreme Court.:

Blogs — particularly a blog of big legal ideas called Volokh Conspiracy — have been central to shifting the conversation about the mandate challenges. At Volokh, Barnett and other libertarian academics have been debating and refining their arguments against the mandate since before the ACA was signed. At the beginning, law professor Jonathan Adler fleshed out the approach that came to typify the elite conservative response for the first months of the public debate: the Founders never intended for the Constitution to permit such broad federal power, but given New Deal-era precedent, the mandate, if it became law, would pass muster. Things changed on Volokh around the time that it became clear that an insurance mandate would be part of whichever health care reform package passed into law.

One congressional floor speech seemed to mark a tonal turning point for Volokh, the moment its writers realized their power to shape debate. On December 22, 2009, Democratic Senator Max Baucus quoted the post by Jonathan Adler mentioned above. Adler clearly resented that Baucus had taken his lawyerly evaluation of the case, stripped out the interesting part (that a pure reading of the Constitution weighs against the mandate, even if precedent weighs in its favor), and used it in a political context — and he responded on Volokh directly to the senator. If the world was going to use Volokh as a political tool, then he could, too. There followed months of posts by various Volokh bloggers, alongside increasingly sophisticated legal arguments, about just how reasonable, how comfortably within bounds the legal arguments against the mandate were. By the following year, a district court judge had cited Barnett in his opinion striking down health care reform, and Barnett himself had left behind his March 2010 conclusion that the Supreme Court would need to risk its credibility in a politically charged case, Bush v. Gore-style, to overturn the mandate.

I am flattered by this estimate of our influence. But there are a number of flaws in Teicholz’ account. First and foremost, it is simply not true that we all thought that the individual mandate would pass muster under current precedent until the exchange between Jonathan Adler and Senator Baucus led us to “realize [our] power to shape debate.”

We knew we had that “power” long before the Adler-Baucus debate. Several of us had influenced public debate through blogging previously. Eugene Volokh has had a lot of influence on public debate over free speech, gun rights, and other issues. Todd Zywicki’s excellent blogging about bankruptcy issues has been extremely influential for years. My own blogging about post-Kelo eminent domain reform and property rights has impacted debate over those issues, and led to invitations to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and other government bodies.

Randy Barnett believed that the individual mandate could not be justified under current precedent all along, which I think was also true of David Kopel. As for me, I always believed that the mandate was unconstitutional, but initially thought that it could be justified under the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Raich (which I have long argued was wrongly decided). What changed my mind was a close re-reading of Raich with the individual mandate case specifically in mind. I obviously can’t speak for Jonathan Adler. But I suspect that the evolution of his views was similar.

Randy and I also initially believed that striking down the mandate would be more politically difficult for the Supreme Court than is likely actually to be the case. That’s because we (or at least I) failed to foresee that the mandate and the health care bill as a whole would remain so unpopular for so long. I’d like to think that some of that unpopularity was the result of our efforts. But the lion’s share was surely caused by other factors. If we really had the power to swing public opinion massively, I would long since have persuaded the public to oppose the War on Drugs and support legalization of organ sales.

Where we did have some influence is in debunking the myth that the constitutionality of the mandate was a no-brainer backed by an overwhelming consensus of expert opinion. But we could not have done that were we not 1) recognized academic experts on these issues ourselves, and 2) able to point to other well-known experts who also believed the mandate to be unconstitutional, many of them not VC-ers. The latter include such prominent constitutional law scholars as Richard Epstein, Steve Calabresi, Steve Presser, and Gary Lawson.

Randy, of course, played an especially vital role by developing crucial legal arguments that had a huge influence. But those arguments would have been of little avail if they could not persuade judges and other experts, as well as lay public opinion. The world is full of laws that are widely disliked, but have no chance of getting invalidated by a court because the arguments against them have no credibility with legal professionals.

Teichholz also errs in thinking that our arguments against the mandate fell by the wayside when the case reached the Supreme Court and the anti-mandate lawyers started using “better-trodden” arguments – implying that our points were mainly for the purpose of influencing the lay public. In reality, Tuesday’s oral argument overwhelmingly focused on the point that I and others here have been pushing for a long time: that the government’s rationales for the mandate lacks any logical limitations, and could therefore justify virtually any mandate of any kind. Several of the justices also suggested that the mandate is constitutionally dubious because it does not regulate any preexisting economic activity – the main argument that Randy has been emphasizing since 2009. Some of Justice Scalia’s questions on the Necessary and Proper Clause almost exactly mirrored the central point of an amicus brief I wrote on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation and a group of constitutional law scholars (though I reiterate that I have no way of knowing whether he got the idea from my brief).

Finally, Teicholz writes as if it is somehow unusual for lawyers to be “waging this battle not only in the courtroom but in the court of public opinion,” suggesting that Randy’s dual role as lawyer and public advocate is particularly “unusual for an appellate lawyer.” In reality, two-track strategies in important constitutional cases are far from new. The abolitionist movement arguably pioneered this kind of approach in the 1840s and 1850s when they challenged the Fugitive Slave Act and other pro-slavery laws. The NAACP pursued a similar strategy since the early 1900s, as have feminists, environmentalists, the gay rights movement, gun rights advocates, property rights supporters and many others. Randy’s role is also far from “unusual” among lawyers involved in high-profile constitutional cases of this kind. As far back as the 1940s, Thurgood Marshall was both the lead appellate litigator for the cause of black civil rights and a major public spokesman for that cause. These historical precedents (many of them by left-wing movements) are what led me to suggest back in March 2010 that a similar strategy could work in this case.

What happened here is just one of many examples of conservatives and libertarians adapting strategies that were mostly pioneered by the political left. Such borrowing from the left is at the heart of much of what conservative and libertarian activists for legal change have achieved over the last thirty years. Ironically, some on the left don’t recognize the influence of their own tactics when they are adopted by adversaries. Perhaps they should recall that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.