The Supreme Court’s landmark decision upholding the individual mandate at the heart of Obamacare may be the start of a third great period in which the court has grappled with a question that continues to divide us as deeply as ever: What are the proper limits on federal power, and how far can the government go in protecting citizens from the depredations of the free market and social and technological change?

The court ruled that the mandate is defensible as a “tax.” In so doing, it supported the administration’s argument that it’s within the proper scope of federal authority to incentivize the purchase of health insurance, in order to expand coverage to millions of Americans who have been left behind by the private market.

In the broadest possible sense, this can be seen as the start of a third era in which the Court wrestles with questions surrounding the expansion of federal power — each era different from the other, says James O’Hara, a trustee of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

During the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to expand the federal government’s management of the economy to cope with the Great Depression. While the court initially dealt Roosevelt plenty of setbacks, the era as a whole can be seen as a ratification of Roosevelt’s broad contention that the crisis merited expansive federal intervension.

During the Warren Court, a liberal era, questions surrounding federal authority were different — and were more directly concerned with the battle between federal power and states’ rights. The Court frequently upheld the federal government’s authority over states on matters ranging from civil rights to voting to education.

Today’s decision can be seen as the start of a third such era, O’Hara says.The decision also concerns the battle between federal and state’s rights, as did many of the Warren era battles. But this is the most far reaching decision the court has made to date to reckon with the complexities of today’s economy, of which health care is an increasingly dominant part.

“We are perhaps entering a third era, in which the court is pragmatically trying to assess the place of the federal government in a world of rapid technological and economic change,” O’Hara said. “The Obama administration has approached health care with broad, sweeping legislation, and the Supreme Court is willing pragmatically to say, `Let’s give it a chance and see how it shakes down Constitutionally.’”

There are many dimensions to this decision, but the big picture is clear. Today the court declared that the federal government has the right to exercise its authority in order to protect Americans from the depredations of the ever increasing health insurance market. “The Supreme Court extended the power of the federal government to move into areas it has not moved in the past,” O’Hara said. “There has been in the 20th Century an increasing amount of power that has flowed toward the federal government. And that continued today.”

More soon.


UPDATE: A number of people have argued today that the ruling curtails federal power by restricting the ability to regulate inactivity under the commerce clause. A legal expert addresses that objection right here.

For more on the Supreme Court ruling:

Erik Wemple: CNN blows its first reaction to the health-care ruling

Jonathan Bernstein: Obamacare lives, but a fight lies ahead

Jennifer Rubin: Turning the political and legal world upside down

Stephen Stromberg: Court saves U.S. from policy pileup

Ed Rogers: Obama won ugly, and only temporarily

Carter Eskew: Supreme Court decision gives new life to President Obama

Kathleen Parker: Winning the day with deceit