Last week the Supreme Court issued its ruling on President Barack Obama's healthcare law in a 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts the surprising swing vote. It was widely assumed the case would be decided by one vote, but many thought the scales would be tipped by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Chief Justice Roberts generally votes with the conservative faction of the court.
Roberts, along with liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, voted to uphold the 2010 law requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance, even supporting its "individual mandate" provision that would penalize anyone who declined to obtain coverage. Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Roberts's surprising vote is being celebrated by many who argue that he ruled on the law based on its constitutionality, not on his own personal politics. U.S. News's Susan Milligan wrote:
It's hard to conclude that this was some sort of mental gymnastics used to achieve a political end, since Roberts—in his brilliant writing style, which manages to be just clever enough to avoid being snide—made it fairly clear he does not particularly like the idea. But it is not the court's job to like a policy or not like it, as the chief justice pointed out. It is the court's job to interpret laws written by Congress and signed by the executive to make sure they have passed constitutional muster.
She goes on to add, "It is even more insulting to suggest that Roberts, because he appears to be a conservative and was appointed by a conservative president, should simply carry the policy water of conservative activists."
Much is also being made of reports that Roberts actually changed sides in the debate—originally leaning towards striking down the law but eventually casting his vote to uphold it, as U.S. News's Peter Roff writes:
Also bothersome to many is the emerging story that Roberts "changed sides" during the court's internal debate … Bowing to political pressure, seeking to preserve the court's reputation, and/or wishing to be loved by the Washington establishment, say the tellers of the tale, Roberts chose to jump the fence and instead voted with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan to keep the law on the books.
But he goes on to say this shouldn't be the focal point of the Republican reaction:
All of this, to one degree or another, is beside the point. The decision has been reached and no amount of Monday morning quarterbacking will make a difference. It is important to know what the court said and how its ruling is to be applied going forward. It is important to understand, to the extent possible, the legal reasoning underpinning what Roberts wrote and what the other justices wrote. But the most important thing, the first thing really, is the need to press on in the political arena with the case for repeal.
Roff argues that conservatives must use Roberts's vote and the healthcare ruling to galvanize the party ahead of this fall's elections to elect a Republican congressional majority and a Republican president, and repeal the healthcare law altogether. All of this, of course, would not be something for liberals to celebrate.
In addition to political ramifications of the ruling, some liberals are worried about the judicial consequences of Roberts's decision. In ruling that states that refuse to expand Medicaid cannot be denied the current funds they receive for the program (but can be denied future funds), last week's decision could restrict Congress's spending power. Some liberal activists worry that this could lead to more restrictions on the federal government's power in future decisions.
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- Read Boris Epshteyn: Obama's Pyrrhic Supreme Court Victory
- Read the U.S. News Debate: Does the Supreme Court's Healthcare Ruling Help Obama?
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