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The lead story this evening at TPM bears the headline “John Roberts May Have Tipped His Hand on ‘Obamacare’ Reasoning.” The gist is that the Chief Justice’s dismissal of the challengers’ contention that the insurance requirement and tax penalty in 26 U.S.C. 5000A are inseparable “may have opened the door to finding that Congress’ power to impose the mandate springs from its broad taxing power.”

I disagree with this characterization. If anything, the government’s taxing power position looked weaker after today’s arguments than before.

In suggesting that Section 5000A is an integrated whole for purposes of evaluating the applicability of the Anti-Injunction Act, Chief Justice Roberts first described the suit as one to challenge penalties, not taxes, then said that the label makes no difference, and concluded by stating that it makes no sense to separate the punishment from the crime. To the extent such statements suggest a position on the taxing power, it goes against the federal government–particularly the language of punishment and crime. Here’s the interchange:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: The whole point -­ the whole point of the suit is to prevent the collection
of penalties.

MR. KATSAS: Of taxes, Mr. Chief Justice.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, prevent the collection of taxes. But the idea that the mandate is something separate from whether you want to call it a penalty or tax just doesn’t seem to make much sense.

MR. KATSAS: It’s entirely separate, and let
me explain to you why.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: It’s a command. A mandate is a command. Now, if there is nothing behind the command, it’s sort of, well, what happens if you don’t follow the mandate? And the answer is nothing, it seems very artificial to separate the punishment from the crime.

For balance, the TPM piece quotes challenger-lawyer Randy Barnett, and I think he has it exactly right: “The only thing I think Chief Justice Roberts was expressing resistance to was our argument that the mandate was separate from the penalty for purposes of the [Anti-Injunction Act]. . . . That is only one of the bases on which the AIA does not foreclose consideration on the merits. I don’t think he was signaling anything at all about the constitutionality of the mandate penalty, the subject of tomorrow’s argument. If he was, however, I expect to get a much better sense of that tomorrow so we won’t have to wait long to find out.”

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