Skip to main content

Obama should know better on Supreme Court's role

By Stephen B. Presser, Special to CNN
April 3, 2012 -- Updated 2102 GMT (0502 HKT)
Stephen Presser says the president's remarks Monday on the Supreme Court's role were mistaken.
Stephen Presser says the president's remarks Monday on the Supreme Court's role were mistaken.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President said top court would break with precedent if it overturns the health care law
  • Stephen Presser says Obama, who taught constitutional law, should know better
  • He says the Supreme Court has long exercised power to overturn unconstitutional laws
  • Presser: Judicial review doesn't usurp Congress' power; it maintains the rule of law

Editor's note: Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger professor of legal history at Northwestern University School of Law and a professor of business law at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He signed two of the amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court challenging the health care law.

(CNN) -- In what must be the most extraordinary statement of his presidency, Barack Obama on Monday blasted the possibility that the United States Supreme Court might overturn the Affordable Care Act. Obama said the court would take an "unprecedented, extraordinary step" if it overturns the law, because it was passed by "a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."

Setting aside the point that the ACA did not pass with an overwhelming majority, but by a party-line vote in the Senate and seven votes in the House, and without the support of a single member of the Republican Party, the most astonishing thing about Obama's diatribe was the fundamental misunderstanding of our constitutional tradition it revealed.

Since 1788, in the famous defense of the Constitution set forth by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, it has been understood that it is the task of the Supreme Court to rein in majoritarian legislatures when they go beyond what the Constitution permits.

Stephen B. Presser
Stephen B. Presser

This is not, as Obama implies, judicial activism, or political activity on the part of the justices. This is simply, as Hamilton explained, fidelity to the Constitution itself, fidelity to the highest expression of "We the People of the United States," the body whose representatives ratified that Constitution.

That doctrine of judicial review was most famously expressed by the great Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison (1803), but it had been noted not only by Hamilton, but by many other federal judges in the late 18th century. And over the years, in more than 50 instances, courts have struck down unconstitutional behavior by the federal and state legislatures.

Judicial review is not usurpation -- it is the manner in which the rule of law is preserved in this nation. It is certainly true that sometimes courts, and even the Supreme Court, have erred in their interpretation of the Constitution, and some legislative acts that clearly were permitted by the Constitution have been struck down. But if the ACA's individual mandate is rejected, this will be fully within the legitimate exercise of judicial powers.

Opinion: Supreme Court is playing with fire

This is because, as was made clear in the recent arguments in the court, that mandate, for the very first time in history, is an attempt to compel virtually every adult American to participate in commerce. It is not an attempt to regulate commerce -- which the Constitution permits -- but is, instead, an attempt to create and compel commerce, which the Constitution does not authorize.

The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a measure regarded as fundamental by those who argued for the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, provides that the powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people thereof.

As the Supreme Court told us in the Lopez (1995) and Morrison (2000) cases, this means that there must be some limits on the powers of the federal government, and it also means that the basic law-making power, the police power, must reside in the governments closest to the people themselves, the state and local governments.

This is our tradition, and the ACA's individual mandate is a fundamental break with that tradition. If, as it should, the Supreme Court declares the individual mandate unconstitutional, it will be reaffirming our traditions, and not usurping them. The president, a former constitutional law teacher, should be ashamed of himself.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen B. Presser.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT