WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court gave a strong hint Monday that the justices are not anxious to rein in Congress’ broad power to pass regulatory laws under the Constitution’s commerce clause, the key point of dispute in the pending court battles over President Obama’s health insurance law.
By a 7-2 vote, the justices turned down a constitutional challenge to a 2002 law that makes it a federal crime for a felon to have body armor or a bulletproof vest. The law came in response to several shootouts involving police, including a bank robbery in North Hollywood where the robbers came equipped in body armor.
But the dispute in the Supreme Court concerned only whether Congress had the power to enact a law regulating the possession of a product — in this instance, body armor. An appeal filed on behalf of Cedrick Alderman, a Seattle man, argued that the possession of a bulletproof vest had nothing to do with interstate commerce and, therefore, was beyond Congress’ power.
“The federal power claimed is the authority to regulate anything — from the possession of French fries to the local theft of a Hershey’s Kiss,” Alderman’s lawyers argued.
The lower courts had upheld the law. The Supreme Court considered the appeal over several months, but rejected it Monday in Alderman vs. United States.
The denial was met by a sharp dissent from Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, the court’s two foremost proponents of limiting Congress’s regulatory power.
“Today, the court tacitly accepts the nullification of our recent Commerce Clause jurisprudence,” wrote Thomas in a seven-page dissent. The court’s failure to act “threatens the proper limits on Congress’ commerce power and may allow Congress to exercise police powers that our Constitution reserves to the states,” he said.
Last year, the court reached a similar result in a case testing whether the federal government had the power to hold sex criminals in federal prisons after they had served their terms. A lower court said this law exceeded Congress’ power, but the justices upheld it in a 7-2 decision in United States vs. Comstock, with dissents by Thomas and Scalia.
The disputes came just as many conservatives and “tea party” activists were demanding more limits on the power of the federal government.
State attorneys for more than 20 states have joined lawsuits arguing that the healthcare law goes beyond Congress’ power because it requires Americans by 2014 to have some health insurance or pay a tax penalty.
Two district judges have rejected such challenges, and one in Virginia has ruled the law unconstitutional. The issue is likely to reach the Supreme Court in a year or two.