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The Supreme Court’s Slippery Slope



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Richard Thaler’s NYT piece from a few days ago, Slippery-Slope Logic, Applied to Health Care, takes conservatives to task for relying on a “slippery slope” fallacy to argue that Obamacare’s individual mandate should be invalidated. Thaler believes that the hypothetical broccoli mandate — used by opponents of Obamacare to show that upholding the mandate would require the Court to acknowledge congressional authority to do all sorts of other things — would never be adopted by Congress or upheld by a federal court. This simplistic view of the Obamacare litigation obscures legitimate concerns over the amount of power that the Obama administration is claiming for the federal government. It also ignores the way creative judges can use previous cases as building blocks to justify outcomes that were perhaps unimaginable when those building blocks were initially formed.  

As I’ve written before, conservatives do not oppose the mandate because they fear Congress will soon debate and pass a broccoli mandate.  The mandate is a unique restriction upon liberty that obscured the true cost of health-care reform, helping secure the passage of a disastrous health-care-reform bill.  It flies in the face of the simple idea that the federal government has limited and enumerated powers and that none of them allows the federal government to force people, as a consequence of their mere existence, to purchase products from private vendors. And as Professor Barnett details over at Volokh, its aims are not noble, creating “a system of a government-mandated privately-administered redistribution of wealth from the young and healthy to older baby boomers.” 

Even if there were not the case, not all slippery-slope claims are fallacious. The Supreme Court’s decisions are often informed by precedent, and, as every law student learned when studying the Court’s privacy cases, a decision today could be used by a judge ten years from now to justify outcomes no one had in mind.

In 1965, the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, referencing penumbras and emanations, recognized a right to privacy in marriage that mandated striking down an anti-contraception law. 

Seven years later, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, this right expanded to individual privacy, because after all, a marriage is made of individuals, and “[i]f the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual . . . to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” 

By 1973 in Roe v. Wade, this precedent, which had started out as a right recognized in marriage, had mutated into a right to abortion that no one could really trace to any specific textual provision in the Constitution. Slippery slope anyone? 

This also happened in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, where the Supreme Court struck down an anti-sodomy law. The Court explained that the case did not involve gay marriage, and Justice O’Connor’s concurrence went further, distinguishing gay marriage from the case at hand. Despite those pronouncements, later decisions enshrining gay marriage as a constitutionally protected right have relied upon Lawrence. For instance, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (Mass. 2003) cited Lawrence 9 times, Varnum v. Brien (Iowa 2009) cited Lawrence 4 times, and Perry v. Brown (N.D. Cal, 2010) cited Lawrence 9 times.

However the Court ultimately rules, there is no question that this case will serve as a major inflection point in our nation’s debate about the size and scope of the federal government. I hope it serves to clarify the limits on congressional power, and not as another stepping stone on the path away from limited, constitutional government.



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