Anyone interested in the constitutional debate over the “Affordable Care Act” should pick up a copy of the new book, A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case.
This “conspiracy” was not a political plot or an illegal combination. Rather, it is one of the nation’s two top constitutional law websites—a blog called the Volokh Conspiracy, founded by UCLA law professor Gene Volokh.
The book is about more than constitutional arguments over Obamacare. It is also about the cracking of a monopoly (or more precisely an oligopoly): the grip on constitutional discourse by a relatively small, and overwhelmingly liberal, cohort of professors who teach at certain elite law schools. These schools include the University of Michigan, Columbia, the University of Chicago —and most notably Harvard and Yale.
Faculty at elite law schools tend to dominate constitutional discourse for a number of reasons. Their prestige attracts a disproportionate amount of legal talent—bright students who later take influential positions as judges, advocates, and policymakers. (Disclosure: I was admitted to several of these institutions, but nevertheless elected to attend Cornell Law School, which is considered very good but not in the “top ten.”) The mainstream media seeks out these professors, largely to the exclusion of other legal experts.
The elite professors also dominate, indirectly, the highly influential law journals published by their own law schools. These journals are edited by law students, who lack the knowledge necessary to measure the quality of a submitted article. Hence, in deciding whether to publish a submission they often rely on the attitudes of their own faculty and/or where the article’s author teaches or attended law school. My own publication career offers two (negative) illustrations of the monopoly’s methods: (1) As a student I resigned from from my own law review in disgust because the editorial board, in imitation of the elite journals, was running the review with a leftist agenda, and (2) as a law professor, I saw all my earlier constitutional articles—including those that ultimately proved most influential—uniformly rejected by the Harvard-Yale axis.
When the Obamacare law was first challenged in court, the Harvard-Yale axis pronounced it “obviously” constitutional. The six authors of this book dared to disagree, and most of the book consists of their postings. In addition to the Independence Institute’s own Dave Kopel, the authors include five full-time law professors, none of whom work at Harvard or Yale. They are Randy Barnett of Georgetown, Jonathan Adler of Case Western, David Bernstein and Ilya Somin of George Mason, and Orin Kerr of George Washington University. All lean libertarian except Kerr; his dissents add spice to the discussion.
Of course, these authors ultimately were vindicated. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the individual insurance mandate as a “tax” was a 5-4 squeaker. The Court also held that the mandate was outside the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, and that the Obamacare Medicaid expansion was partly unconstitutional. As you make your way through the book, you can see how the winning arguments evolved. My favorite was the realization that the Supreme Court’s “substantial effects” test is a (mis-) application not of the Commerce Clause but of the Necessary and Proper Clause.
At the end of the volume is a section called “Postscript and Concluding Thoughts.” It encompasses six original essays in which the authors discuss the Obamacare case and its outcome. Probably the longest of these is Dave Kopel’s. I personally found it most interesting because it provides historical context and tells the story of the Independence Institute’s participation in the case.
A Conspiracy Against Obamacare is published by Palgrave MacMillan and edited by the Cato Institute’s Trever Burrus. Paul Clement, the former U.S. Solicitor General who argued the case against Obamacare in the Supreme Court, has written an engaging Foreward.
Rob Natelson is a former professor of constitutional law at the University of Montana and senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.