During today’s oral arguments about the severability of Section 5000A, neither the Justices nor counsel could come up with a case in which the Court had left standing the rest of a partially unconstitutional statute after “excising” its “heart.”
Justice Scalia pressed Edwin Kneedler, counsel for the federal government, for an example. Kneedler suggested United States v. Booker, but Justice Scalia rejected it as inapt. Mr. Kneedler then stated that “there is no example,” which led Justice Scalia to say: “This is really a case of first impression. I don’t know another case where we have been confronted with this — with this decision. Can you take out the heart of the Act and leave everything else in its place?”
One example that comes to mind, however, is the federal income tax, which the Supreme Court held partially unconstitutional and inseverable in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 158 U.S. 601 (1895). This was the case later described by Justice Jackson, in The Struggle for Judicial Supremacy, as “a brilliant and smashing victory” for “the opponents of majority rule.” The Court held in Pollock that a tax on income from property was an unconstitutional direct tax. There was no similar constitutional problem with a tax on income from wages and salaries. But the Court held that the income tax was inseverable and therefore entirely unenforceable, not only as to income from property but also as to income from wages and salaries. This was a massive blow to the government. And it is commonly thought that, in Justice Jackson’s words, “the whole Act fell.” But that is incorrect. The income tax was part of a larger Act called the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894. In Pollock, the Supreme Court rendered unenforceable sections 27 to 37 of this Act, but not the remainder. It is a judgment call whether the income tax provisions were the “heart” of this Act (just as the relative importance of Section 5000A to the PPACA can be debated as well). But the inclusion of the income tax was important to the overall legislative bargain because it was supposed to raise revenue that would be lost by the lowering of tariff rates. Given the importance of the income tax politically and the high-profile nature of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of it–ultimately leading to the Sixteenth Amendment–perhaps Pollock is the precedent the Court is looking for.