George Fountas, an out-of-work accountant from Lynn, Massachusetts, profoundly mistrusts the healthcare system. Get him started, and he’ll reel off stories about how death rates decline when doctors go on strike and burial societies are the biggest fans of hospitals. Before 2007, according to Fountas, he had never paid a penny for healthcare coverage. He saw no reason why he should start, despite a then-new law in Massachusetts that said he’d be subject to a fine if he refused to join a health insurance plan. He refused to join a health plan, and refused to report that information on his 2007 tax return.
Fountas has no more regard for lawyers than doctors — “I’m kind of antisocial,” he told me — but he’s a U.S. Constitution buff. So instead of simply surrendering his $60 tax refund to the state as a penalty for failing to comply with the new law (and also giving up the right to claim a personal tax exemption worth about $219), Fountas filed a complaint in Essex County Superior Court claiming that the Massachusetts mandate violated his due process rights under both the state and federal constitutions.
Fountas’ amended suit was a scant five pages, but it raised some of the same fundamental questions that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed last week in an unprecedented three days of oral arguments on President Barack Obama’s nationwide healthcare law. Does a legislative body have the power to compel an individual to purchase health insurance? And does it have the power to impose a penalty on anyone who refuses to comply with that directive?
Here’s what Fountas said in his 2007 complaint:
It is [my] belief that any laws passed by the state government to punish [me] for observing a principle described in the Constitution of the Commonwealth as ‘absolutely necessary to preserve the advantage of liberty and to maintain a free government’ are contrary to that Constitution and are therefore null and void… Punishing residents who observe a principle stated in such forceful language can in no way be taken as an observance of that principle by agents of those same residents.
Arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court centered on whether Congress exceeded its power to regulate interstate commerce under the Commerce Clause when it passed the nationwide healthcare mandate, rather than on the due process arguments Fountas put forth and the state Supreme Court ultimately rejected. The Commerce Clause obviously has no bearing on the power of the Massachusetts state legislature, so even if the justices strike down the nationwide law, the Massachusetts mandate is expected to remain in place. That could create quite an interesting political conundrum for Mitt Romney, who signed the Massachusetts mandate into law. Fountas said he’ll be glad to see Romney held accountable for the Massachusetts law. “He’s a white Obama,” he said.