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Originalism in the Health Care Case: What is a Direct Tax?
Michael Ramsey

Perhaps the least explained originalist issue in the health care case is this: What is a "direct" tax?  According to the majority, the individual mandate is constitutional because it is a "tax" (or rather, could reasonably considered a tax).  But it can't be a "direct" tax, because Article I, Section 9 says:

No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.

For the majority, Chief Justice Roberts concludes it is not a direct tax, but perhaps not too persuasively.  Here is all he says:

Even when the Direct Tax Clause was written it was unclear what else, other than a capitation (also known as a “head tax” or a “poll tax”), might be a direct tax. See Springer v. United States, 102 U. S. 586, 596–598 (1881).Soon after the framing, Congress passed a tax on owner­ship of carriages, over James Madison’s objection that it was an unapportioned direct tax. Id., at 597. This Court upheld the tax, in part reasoning that apportioning such a tax would make little sense, because it would have re­quired taxing carriage owners at dramatically different rates depending on how many carriages were in their home State. See Hylton v. United States, 3 Dall. 171, 174 (1796) (opinion of Chase, J.). The Court was unanimous, and those Justices who wrote opinions either directly asserted or strongly suggested that only two forms of taxation were direct: capitations and land taxes. See id., at 175; id., at 177 (opinion of Paterson, J.); id., at 183 (opinion of Iredell, J.).

That narrow view of what a direct tax might be per­sisted for a century. In 1880, for example, we explained that “direct taxes, within the meaning of the Constitution, are only capitation taxes, as expressed in that instrument, and taxes on real estate.” Springer, supra, at 602. In 1895, we expanded our interpretation to include taxes on personal property and income from personal property, in the course of striking down aspects of the federal income tax. Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 158 U. S. 601, 618 (1895). That result was overturned by the Sixteenth Amendment, although we continued to consider taxes on personal property to be direct taxes. See Eisner v. Macom­ber, 252 U. S. 189, 218–219 (1920).

A tax on going without health insurance does not fall within any recognized category of direct tax. It is not a capitation. Capitations are taxes paid by every person, “without regard to property, profession, or any other cir­cumstance.” Hylton, supra, at 175 (opinion of Chase, J.) (emphasis altered). The whole point of the shared respon­sibility payment is that it is triggered by specific cir­cumstances—earning a certain amount of income but not obtaining health insurance. The payment is also plainly not a tax on the ownership of land or personal property. The shared responsibility payment is thus not a direct tax that must be apportioned among the several States.

The joint dissent had only this to say in response:

Finally, we must observe that rewriting §5000A as a tax in order to sustain its constitutionality would force us to confront a difficult constitutional question: whether this is a direct tax that must be apportioned among the States according to their population. Art. I, §9, cl. 4. Perhaps it is not (we have no need to address the point); but the meaning of the Direct Tax Clause is famously unclear, and its application here is a question of first impression that deserves more thoughtful consideration than the lick-and­-a-promise accorded by the Government and its supporters. The Government’s opening brief did not even address the question—perhaps because, until today, no federal court has accepted the implausible argument that §5000A is an exercise of the tax power. And once respondents raised the issue, the Government devoted a mere 21 lines of its reply brief to the issue. Petitioners’ Minimum Coverage Reply Brief 25. At oral argument, the most prolonged statement about the issue was just over 50 words. Tr. of Oral Arg. 79 (Mar. 27, 2012). One would expect this Court to demand more than fly-by-night briefing and argument before deciding a difficult constitutional question of first impression.

So what is the true originalist answer? At the Federalist Society's SCOTUS Report, Joel Alicea notes that he and Donald Drakeman (with great foresight) have a forthcoming article on originalism and the Hylton case.