By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Justice Scalia strongly believes that you should not be forced to buy broccoli. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is addressing the legality of the Affordable Care Act, with Tuesday's oral arguments focusing on whether an individual mandate to buy health insurance is consistent with the Constitution's Commerce Clause. Defending the law, Donald Verrilli argued that Congress is regulating the interstate market for healthcare, and since everyone needs healthcare sooner or later, and insurance is the main method of paying for it, congress can require individual insurance coverage. "It may well be that everybody needs healthcare sooner or later," Justice Scalia fired back, "but…everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food, therefore, everybody is in the market; therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.”
It is a favored method of judicial counterargument, termed reductio ad absurdum, the Latin phrase referring to disproof by showing that the argument leads to absurd conclusions. Tuesday's oral argument focused to a large extent on this style of argument with, for example, Chief Justice Roberts talking about required cell phone purchase and Justice Alito talking about requirements to finance burial services. There is a formula for addressing this common style of argument. Whether it will end up being successful or not remains to be seen, but the response was on full display in Tuesday's arguments. Taking a cue from this current hearing, this post will take a closer look at the logic of the argument style and its response, as a guide to all lawyers who want to prevent your judge from taking the argument from where you built it to an absurd place.