It’s been a humdinger of a week for the old Supreme Court of the United States, hasn’t it? Fresh off another closely watched decision, and the unanimous vote to retain the central plank of Arizona’s abysmal 2010 immigration law, the nation hung in suspense as the court undertook a review of the hotly debated healthcare reform legislation otherwise known as Obamacare.
The pessimistic amongst us (including this writer) feared the worst. The right-swinging SCOTUS would surely shoot down the so-called “individual mandate” portion of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the piece that offers a step toward universal coverage while ultimately attempting to lower the burden of the insured to cover so many unsubsidized emergency room visits. Hell, there was every reason to suspect that the entire baby would be tossed with the proverbial bathwater. The partisan rancor which has engulfed Capitol Hill and all but quashed anything akin to rational, nonpartisan debate (name the topic) has migrated over to the Supreme Court Building in recent years. If the justices voted along two-party lines, which is no longer as preposterous a notion as it once seemed, then this thing could easily have gone 5-4 against.
But then an amazing thing happened: Chief Justice John Roberts played the spoiler. To underscore the unanticipated nature of Robert’s vote, consider that no less a bland source than Wikipedia has this to say about the predictability of the judge’s vote: “It is popularly accepted that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito comprise the Court’s conservative wing.”
Now it is granted that Roberts’ decision to uphold the constitutionality of the individual mandate differed from the opinions offered by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. While the latter viewed the provision of the Affordable Healthcare Act through the prism of Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce, Roberts offered that the mandate is actually a tax. Tomato, tomatoe – the law was upheld and people with pre-existing conditions can look forward to a day when they are released from the insurance penalty box. The reform is by no means a perfect piece of legislation and if anything, many Americans are left with the impression that President Obama did not go far enough to overhaul the nation’s inefficient and cruel system, but my goodness, if moderate steps are erased, what are the chances of a more revolutionary effort succeeding?
So what did happen with Roberts anyway? Was his a vote cast to mitigate the public impression that the SCOTUS is too politically partisan to continue assessing objective questions of law and liberty? Was it a closet endorsement of the President’s attempt to overhaul a greatly broken drain on our domestic spending (which a true fiscal conservative would support)? Was the surprise decision a confirmation of Robert’s genuine belief in the government’s right to tax?
These are questions that need to be pondered if we are to anticipate future outcomes from the Court, and we ought to remain concerned with the late partiality of certain justices toward pleasing a political base. But you know what? This is a week to celebrate the increasingly rare opportunities when we can take pride in our democratic system, the checks and balances installed by our ancestors. There are moments when it all works as it should. This is one of them.