Roscoe Filburn sued to overturn a 1938 federal law that said how much wheat he could grow on his farm and made him pay a penalty for every extra bushel.
The 1942 decision against him, Wickard v. Filburn, is the basis for the Supreme Court’s modern understanding of the scope of federal power. It is the contested ground on which the health care case has been fought in the lower courts, and it is likely to be crucial to the votes of Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, who are widely seen as open to persuasion by either side.
Supporters and opponents of the health care law say the decision helps their side.
To hear the Obama administration tell it, the Filburn decision illustrates how much leeway the federal government has under the Constitution’s commerce clause to regulate the choices people make in matters affecting the economy. If the government can make farmers choose between growing crops and paying a penalty, it can tell people that they must get health insurance or pay a penalty.
Opponents of the law say the case sets the outer limit of federal power, one the health care law exceeds. It is one thing to encourage farmers to buy wheat by punishing them for growing their own. It is another to require people to buy insurance or face a penalty, as the health care law does.
Mr. Filburn argued, as do opponents of the health care overhaul, that he was challenging a law that was not authorized by the Constitution, which allows Congress to regulate commerce “among the several states.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling against him was unanimous.
“Even if appellee’s activity be local,” Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote, “and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce.”
The decisions of millions of people to go without health insurance have a significant effect on the national economy by raising other people’s rates and forcing hospitals to pay for the emergency care of those who cannot afford it.
The administration has insisted that the overhaul law is a modest assertion of federal power in comparison to the law Mr. Filburn challenged. “The constitutional foundation for Congress’s action is considerably stronger” for the health care law than for the law that the Supreme Court endorsed in 1942, the administration said in a brief.
Opponents of the law take the opposite view. It is true that the federal government may “regulate bootleggers because of their aggregate harm to the interstate liquor market,” Mr. Carvin wrote in a brief, but the government “may not conscript teetotalers merely because conditions in the liquor market would be improved if more people imbibed.”