If anyone wants to doubt the genius of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, that person will have to come through me. That may seem like an odd statement from your resident bleeding heart liberal columnist about the ultra conservative judge, but facts are facts.
Justice Roberts is being both regaled and villanized for his swing vote on the Affordable Care Act ruling in which his vote allowed the specifics of the act to go forward. Liberals are celebrating and conservatives are already scheming.
But, where is the Roberts genius in all this?
First, Chief Justice Roberts may have saved the integrity of the Supreme Court. The court has approval numbers much like Congress–lower than a snake’s belly. The public was getting tired of an activist court making predictable 5-4 decisions split along ideology lines. The court isn’t supposed to be ideological, but that is only true in a perfect world.
The rulings of the Supreme Court are the last word on whether or not an issue is constitutional. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky was dead wrong when he addressed the public sharing his disappointment with the ruling saying, “Just because a couple of Supreme Court judges say so doesn’t make a law constitutional.”
Well, it does. That is the court’s only function. However, there is no higher system to make citizens agree. The court has to rely on public opinion for their trust and support. Roberts may have gone a long way toward restoring faith in the court by making a tough call.
Next, Roberts showed his brilliance because he may have saved the reputation of this specific court bearing his name. Take away all the politics and diverse ideas about both health care and private health insurance companies, the act is and will continue to improve and expand the health care system for millions of people who must risk total family ruin due to any type of illness.
He likely did not want to go down in history as the leader of the court that took away health care from young adults who could be included in their family’s policy while they got started in the work force. Or, go down in history as the leader of the court that gave back insurance companies’ ability to refuse sick people, cancel insured folks when they get sick, limit the company’s liability to pay out claims, and have unrestricted ability to raise premiums–he didn’t want to be that guy!
Some people are expecting a check from their medical insurance companies this summer because the act limits how much premium money can be paid to CEOs and administrative costs. Many companies did not comply and, under the act, owe their insured clients some cash back. Roberts did not want to be the guy that ruined a summer vacation.
The true genius came in the way he wrote the opinion. The challenge to the act was primarily due to the conservatives contending that the government could not force citizens to buy insurance under the umbrella of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. That clause states that if you use something, you can be forced to pay for it. If you use highways, you can be forced to pay road fees. The argument was that uninsured people were not using a part of the health care system, so the clause did not apply.
Roberts agreed with his fellow conservatives. But, he took the next step to save his court specifically and the Supreme Court in general by moving the rationale to the tax code. He ruled that the government could indeed tax citizens who did not comply with health insurance laws.
So, for now, the Affordable Care Act stands as written and is on track to become fully functional by 2014. But, by moving the mandate from the realm of interstate commerce into tax law, Roberts slyly provided a political inroad to his conservative friends to more easily overturn the act.
Congress is in political gridlock. Every Senate issue is threatened with a filibuster that takes 60 votes to crack. But wait, tax issues are a different animal. Taxes can be considered through tax reconciliation. Those issues cannot be filibustered and are passable with a simple majority–51 votes. Chief Justice Roberts knows this.
If the 2012 election stars align the way Republicans plan–they win the White House, keep control of the House of Representatives, and gain, even a 50-50 split in the Senate–the Affordable Care Act can easily be repealed because a 50-50 vote in the Senate would be resolved by the Vice President, whomever that may be in a November Republican win.
If this doesn’t fire up both parties to get out the vote, I don’t know what will.