If the Obama administration persuades the Supreme Court to uphold its health care overhaul law, it will be in large part thanks to a 70-year-old precedent involving an Ohio farmer named Roscoe C. Filburn.
Mr. Filburn sued to overturn a 1938 federal law that told him how much wheat he could grow on his family 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 in the parties’ briefs. 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.
“Wickard has become so foundational for generations of lawyers that any plausible understanding of the commerce power must come to terms with it,” said Bradley W. Joondeph, a law professor at Santa Clara University.
Both supporters and opponents of the health care law say the decision helps their side, and for three days starting next Monday, it will be at the center of the arguments before the Supreme Court about the law’s constitutionality.