Chief Justice John Roberts was the deciding vote in the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Affordable Care Act. In fact, he authored the majority opinion outlining that the law was not a valid use of the Commerce Clause, but was a valid use of Congress’ ability to tax and spend. While I am not a lawyer, I did read the opinion, and I think it was a pretty cogent argument. It hinged on how one chose to define the market, but I agree that if the broad definition was used, things like food and shelter are universal markets in the same way that health care is, and that does present a somewhat slippery slope. The power to tax makes much more sense.
On the one hand, then, I think that Roberts simply allowed his opinion to be shaped by a sound interpretation of the law, legal precedent, and his understanding of the Constittuion. Another part of me, though, doubts this. While it’s sad to admit, ever since the Supreme Court ended the Florida recount early and basically appointed George W. Bush as the King in Chief, I’ve been dubious. All the more so when the Roberts court granted corporations the rights of persons, free to give unlimited campaign contributions. I don’t think I’m alone in this view. After all, most of the pre-ruling chatter had Justice Kennedy as the deciding swing vote. For the record, he voted to strike down the individual mandate. No one seemed to consider for a moment that Roberts would align with the more liberal judges to uphold the law. So why did he?
As I said, he may simply be a great chief justice, unswayed by politics and guided solely by the law. On the other hand, his motives may be less pure. Maybe he just wanted to cement his place in history. After all, this has been described as a landmark case and the case of the century, so it wouldn’t be surprising that he would want to be the deciding vote and the author of the majority opinion. Of course, he could have gone either way, and both of those things still would have happened, which suggests that he truly does care about the outcome.
While the outcome certainly upholds a liberal law on the surface, I think that there’s more to it than that. For instance, the fact that the majority placed limits on the interpretation of the Commerce Clause is actually a conservative ruling. So Roberts is being true to form there. The limitations on penalties to the states regarding the Medicaid expansion is also a limit to federal power, which is another victory for conservatives. Upholding the law under Congress’ ability to tax and spend may actually have an ulterior motive as well. For starters, had the court struck down the law, the right would have lost one of its key rallying cries in the months leading up to the November election. Instead, the decision has incited further revolt from the far right and the ranks of the Tea Party. People who, for whatever reason, are adamantly opposed to the Affordable Care Act, now see electing Mitt Romney and other conservatives in the House and Senate as the only remaining path to repealing the law. This solidifes the base and the fringe and likely increases voter turnout on the right. At the same time, the left may relax a little in the wake of the ruling, causing support for Obama to slip at the polls.
This scenario is compounded by the fact that the law was upheld under the notion that the penalty for remaining uninsured is to be considered a tax. Conservatives (and, well, most of us) hate taxes, so giving them ammunition in this regard might actually have been Roberts’ way of giving Republicans some good talking point material as the election heats up. It’s also important to note that Roberts writes several times about the role of the court versus the role of Congress, in which he makes clear that he doesn’t necessarily think that the Affordable Care Act is good policy. Instead, he says, that is for the people to decide by voting for their representatives and voting out those who pass policies that the public doesn’t support. That seems to be Roberts’ way of saying “Mitt 2012.” But, like I said at the outset, I’m not a lawyer.