Civil rights-era case offers perspective on current ACA fight
Old civil rights-era case offers perspective on health reform legal fight
If last week’s marathon arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court (and all the demonstrations outside) on the healthcare reform law evoked some deja vu, it’s not surprising. Among all the cases cited by the various parties to the legal extravaganza is one some people might remember: Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States. This litigation arose out of the bitter controversy surrounding Congress’ approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law, which was largely based on Congress’ authority under the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, barred racial discrimination in public accommodations.
Enactment of the law prompted the owner of the large motel, who refused to rent rooms to black customers, to file a suit contending that the legislation exceeded Congress’ authority under the commerce clause. The owner, who was a lawyer, also charged that the act violated his Fifth Amendment rights to choose customers and operate his business the way he wanted, depriving him of his property without due process of law. Moreover, he contended that the Civil Rights Act violated his 13th Amendment rights, forcing him into involuntary servitude by making him rent to African-americans.
The owner was not alone in his protests. Opponents commonly argued that Congress had exceeded its authority under the Constitution. The involuntary servitude tack was not so common, although a lot of critics might have felt that way.
In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act was a valid exercise of congressional power under the commerce clause, and that the motel in question clearly did business affecting interstate commerce. And it dismissed the Fifth and 13th Amendment arguments.
We recall this case not to predict how the Supreme Court may rule on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But it does raise a question and offer some historical perspective.
The question involves congressional authority. What happens if the justices in ruling on the healthcare law adopt a very narrow interpretation of commerce clause enforcement power? Much of federal law is tied to the clause, and many statutes would be subject to serious court challenges. These include civil rights, labor and environmental laws, consumer protections and anti-corruption statutes. Even some ACA opponents won’t be happy with the invalidation of pet laws.
On the historical front, there are parallels to our time. Now, as then, we have Congress trying to ensure that all citizens have access to basic services. Then, it was a matter of being able to get a hotel room or a meal. Today, it is whether people can enjoy basic access to medical services. Once again, critics are arguing that Congress has no power to pursue an inclusive goal—this time of universal care or at least near-universal—access to care.
Also note the similarity between the involuntary servitude tack and the contemporary cries of abridged freedom by being required to buy health insurance.
The answer to the ultimate question underlying all of this is beyond the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. That is whether Americans are one people with common interests or a group of unconnected individuals who find themselves within common borders. After World War II, the country built a consensus that all U.S. citizens should be treated equally when it comes to obtaining basic services. A consensus seems to have emerged gradually and painfully over the last century—resulting in Medicare, Medicaid and the Aca—that similar principles should apply to healthcare. Whether that consensus from the past holds under powerful attack is the real key to the future of healthcare reform.