Before I start, I have to say that I’m overjoyed at the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act today. Friends and family members who sacrificed their health because they couldn’t afford coverage, or those who were denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, can now rest a bit.
The key figure in today’s decision is Chief Justice John Roberts. He has voted solidly with the conservative justices, with Anthony Kennedy responsible for the swing vote in most cases. Today, he chose to vote with the liberal bloc. The headlines are declaring, “The Roberts Court is Born.”
I’m a little bit of a US Supreme Court history junky (maybe it’s that undergrad degree in Political Science), and I’ve been intrigued by Justice Roberts since he was first appointed. While there is no doubt that partisan politics and political ideology molds a Chief Justice and impacts their decisions, there are two other primary influences that I believe grow over time:
- They are the chief representative and embodiment of the institution of the US Supreme Court.
- They have a strong sense of their historical legacy.
There have been only 17 chief justices in the 223 year history of the Supreme Court. John Marshall’s career spanned that of six US Presidents, four of whom served two terms. Much of their job is defined by the precedents set by their predecessors: their decisions today are constrained by and they continually defer or refer to decisions. Perhaps even more than any other official in the US government, including the president, single decisions made by one or a handful of justices have tremendous power over the lives of millions. Think of Dred Scott v. Sanford, Brown v. Board of Education, or Roe v. Wade. Roberts is a relatively young chief justice. He has the potential to to be one of the longest serving (it’s hard to beat Marshall’s), and to be one of the most influential people in the history of the United States, and he is fully aware of this.
Combine this sense of historical and institutional perspective with the following fact (from the SCOTUS blog), and Roberts’ decision makes more sense to me:
No Supreme Court has struck down a president’s signature piece of legislation in over 75 years.
He wasn’t willing to break this long streak, and expose his court to criticism of judicial activism. But he’s not suddenly embracing liberal politics, either. Scanning through the decision this morning, it seemed to me to be largely technical. One of his key arguments was to say that by imposing a penalty for those who don’t buy insurance, Congress isn’t forcing citizens to engage in commerce (something beyond its authority), but is instead imposing a tax (an enumerated power). This morning Rush Limbaugh ran with the ammunition provided by Roberts, calling Obamacare the “largest tax increase in the history of the world.” Romney launched a similar barrage, saying that “ObamaCare raises taxes on the American people by $500 billion.”
Roberts, in defecting from his bloc to uphold the ACA, accomplished the following:
- He protected the Court from accusations of judicial activism and continuing partisanship,
- He gave the Republicans powerful tax ammunition to use against Obama in the upcoming election,
- He established his own legacy–He showed that he could resist the overt taint of partisanship while still playing a deft political game.
Well played, Chief Justice Roberts. Well played.