At Center of Health Care Fight, Roscoe Filburn’s 1942 Commerce Case
If the Obama administration persuades the Supreme Court to uphold its health care overhaul law, it will be in large part thanks to a 70-year-old precedent involving an Ohio farmer named Roscoe C. Filburn.
Mr. Filburn sued to overturn a 1938 federal law that told him how much wheat he could grow on his family farm and made him pay a penalty for every extra bushel.
The 1942 decision against him, Wickard v. Filburn, is the basis for the Supreme Court’s modern understanding of the scope of federal power. It is the contested ground on which the health care case has been fought in the lower courts and in the parties’ briefs. And it is likely to be crucial to the votes of Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, who are widely seen as open to persuasion by either side.
“Wickard has become so foundational for generations of lawyers that any plausible understanding of the commerce power must come to terms with it,” said Bradley W. Joondeph, a law professor at Santa Clara University.
Both supporters and opponents of the health care law say the decision helps their side, and for three days starting next Monday, it will be at the center of the arguments before the Supreme Court about the law’s constitutionality.
To hear the Obama administration tell it, the Filburn decision illustrates just how much leeway the federal government has under the Constitution’s commerce clause to regulate the choices individuals make in matters affecting the national economy. If the government can make farmers choose between growing crops on their own land and paying a penalty, the administration’s lawyers have said, it can surely tell people that they must obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.
Opponents of the law draw a different lesson from Mr. Filburn’s case. They say it set the outer limit of federal power, one the health care law exceeds. It is one thing to encourage farmers to buy wheat by punishing them for growing their own, the argument goes. It is another to require people to buy insurance or face a penalty, as the health care law does.
“There’s a difference between being given an incentive and compulsion,” said Michael A. Carvin, a lawyer for the National Federation of Independent Business and several individuals challenging the law.
Mr. Filburn argued, as do opponents of the health care overhaul, that he was challenging a law that was not authorized by the Constitution, which allows Congress to regulate commerce “among the several states.” A decision against him, Mr. Filburn said, would move the nation toward a centralized government and “nullifications of all constitutional limitations.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling against him was unanimous.