Severability doctrine is not only a “discretionary destructive device” that “calls on judges to act, consciously, like legislators,” but it also results in the creation of law without accountability.
Suppose that the Supreme Court holds the so-called individual mandate unconstitutional and fully severable. When insurance companies are stuck with guaranteed-issue and community ratings for sicker people, but without the revenue that comes from insuring healthier people, who is responsible for that? Congress, because it used an unconstitutional mechanism and did not include an inseverability provision? The Court, because it refused to hold the mandate inseverable from these other provisions? There is no good way to answer these questions, because the judiciary’s action is formally based on perceived congressional intent. Both Congress and the Court are responsible, and neither are.
The problem is not simply the existence of a law that Congress never enacted and the President never signed. A holding of unconstitutionality and inseverability that obliterated the PPACA entirely would raise a similar problem of accountability. When small businesses that benefit from tax credits in the PPACA or individuals that benefit from the ban on lifetime caps are deprived of the benefits that they currently enjoy under the PPACA, who do they blame? A case can be made against both Congress and the Court, and each institution also has a plausible defense.
The Supreme Court has often noted the connection between liberty and accountability. An important aspect of liberty is self-government, and self-government requires accountability. That is an important theme of the Court’s federalism jurisprudence. And it also underlies the Court’s recognition that the separation of powers also promotes individual liberty. Consider, for example, Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court last term in United States v. Bond, which stated:
Separation-of-powers principles are intended, in part, to protect each branch of government from incursion by the others. Yet the dynamic between and among the branches is not the only object of the Constitution’s concern. The structural principles secured by the separation of powers protect the individual as well.
Within the excision-based framework of modern severability doctrine, there is simply no way for the judiciary to avoid illegitimate law creation or law destruction. And the federal judiciary’s presence in the legislative realm violates the separation of powers. “We Americans have a method for making the laws that are over us. We elect representatives to two Houses of Congress, each of which must enact the new law and present it for the approval of a President, whom we also elect.” Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain (Scalia, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment). Once these laws are made, the federal judiciary has a proper role of deciding on their enforceability in cases or controversies. That judicial role is powerful, but limited. The limits come from the federal judicial power itself. For too long, modern severability doctrine has located within the judicial power an avowedly legislative function. In future posts, I will lay out an alternative approach–the original approach to partial unconstitutionality–more deeply rooted in traditional understandings of the federal judicial role.