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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

When the Supreme Court ruled, last week, that, yes, the federal government can require people to buy health insurance or pay a fine, the Court did not allow it, as many had expected, under the commerce clause of the Constitution. In fact the court ruled the commerce clause does not give the government that power.

The decision would have made Roscoe Filburn very happy. He was a farmer from Ohio who took a related case all the way to the Supreme Court but lost.

Here is David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Roscoe Filburn was a farmer with strong views of right and wrong. So when the government passed a law in 1938 that tried to limit how much wheat he could grow on his land that felt very, very wrong to him.

The purpose of the law was to try to keep the price of wheat from dropping; this was just after the Great Depression. And the commerce clause of the Constitution does give the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce.

But Roscoe's thinking was, look, yes I grow wheat, but I'm just using it feed my chickens. I'm not selling wheat across interstate lines. I'm not selling wheat at all. It never leaves my farm.

Jim Chen is dean of the University of Louisville School of Law. He says you can understand the guy's point of view.

JIM CHEN: I'm a chicken guy - I sell eggs, literally walked in from the barn. Would you like some? It will cost you a dime for a dozen. I'm a fourth or fifth generation farmer. You are bunch of pointy-headed idiots with economic charts and equations in Washington. D.C. And you know nothing about what it means to grow wheat. You can go to hell.

KESTENBAUM: The law says he can only grow 11 acres of wheat. Roscoe Filburn goes out and defiantly plants twice that. The government tries to fine him. There's a court case. And eventually Roscoe Filburn, dairy farmer from Ohio, his case ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court. It would turn out to be one of the most influential cases in history.

The Supreme Court hears arguments and decides - I am going to translate into normal speech here: Sorry, Mr. Filburn, you've got to pay the fine.

It's true you didn't buy or sell any wheat. But you were still affecting the wheat market. Because every extra bushel you grew was a bushel you didn't have to buy, which in some small way affected the price for wheat.

And here's the parallel to the health care case. Roscoe Filburn didn't buy or sell wheat but the commerce clause still applied. What about people who don't buy or sell health insurance, could it be applied there?

The Supreme Court last week ruled people could be forced to buy health insurance, but not under the commerce clause. Chief Justice Roberts argued there was a difference between activity and inactivity. Roscoe Filburn was actively growing wheat, but people not buying health insurance weren't doing anything.

Roscoe Filburn died in 1987. I tracked down his grandson, Gerald Spurgeon, who said he didn't even know his grandfather had been part of a monumental Supreme Court case, until after he died.

GERALD SPURGEON: He never talked about it, nothing.

KESTENBAUM: Was he a talkative guy or a sort of quiet guy?

SPURGEON: No, he wasn't talkative.

KESTENBAUM: He was a farmer, yeah.

SPURGEON: He was a farmer.

KESTENBAUM: Roscoe Filburn eventually sold his farm. He took long vacations in Florida. He liked to fish and beat his grandchildren at checkers.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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