This Article identifies and analyzes the recent emergence of a “tiers of scrutiny” system in Supreme Court jurisprudence respecting the boundaries of Congress’s enumerated powers. The inquiry is motivated by the Court’s recent ruling on the federal healthcare law, which demonstrated that the national legislature’s election among its diverse textual sources of authority in Article I can have large, outcome-determinative consequences in constitutional challenges to federal laws. This is so because the Court not only delineates each power’s substantive boundaries differently but also applies distinct standards of review to the various legislative powers enumerated in Article I and elsewhere in the Constitution. Variation in the standard of review generates both synchronic and diachronic oscillation in the quantum of empirical justification and means-end rationality demanded of Congress. This observed heterogeneity in the judicial demand for legislative rationality and empirical evidence is quite distinct from questions of how broadly or narrowly the substance of each enumerated power is defined.
This Article’s threshold contribution is a comprehensive documentation of variation in doctrinal formulae concerning the standard of review in enumerated powers cases. Having demonstrated the existence of tiers of scrutiny for enumerated powers, it then evaluates their use in enumerated powers jurisprudence. Drawing on political science scholarship, social choice theory, and public choice theory, it demonstrates that the Court’s use of tiers of scrutiny has deleterious effects on judicial and legislative incentives and behavior. This Article then identifies six potential justifications for the Court’s emergent practice of calibrating judicial review differentially by enumerated power. Closely examining each of those six justifications for stratified review, it finds all of them wanting. At the same time as it creates negative externalities, therefore, the practice of tiered review for enumerated powers lacks any compelling normative justification. By abandoning the emerging tiers of scrutiny and instead employing a lockstep approach to the review of enumerated powers, this Article suggests, federal courts would reduce opportunities for strategic behavior by judges and elected officials. The proposed doctrinal reformulation would also introduce clarity into a currently opaque, yet abidingly important, domain of public law.