John Roberts’s Healthcare Ruling Is Based on Law, Not Politics

Outrage that Chief Justice John Roberts betrayed conservatives by finding the healthcare law constitutional is misplaced.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts smiles as he is introduced before speaking to students and faculty at the Northwestern University School of Law Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007 in Chicago. Justice Roberts, who is visiting the school as the Howard J. Trienens Visiting judicial Scholar, will be providing students and faculty with perspectives on the judicial process and contemporary legal issues.

The Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act did a lot to restore integrity to the court. Unfortunately, many Americans don't see it that way, making the distinction somewhat less significant.

It has nothing to do with the impact of the decision itself, which Americans—both politicians and political civilians—have every right to quibble about from a policy perspective. It has everything to do with the court's stated constitutional role in interpreting the law, even if some or even a majority of people don't like the law.

Chief Justice John Roberts stunned nearly everyone when he sided with the court's liberals in upholding the health insurance mandate as a constitutionally-allowable tax levied by the U.S. government. 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.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

Still, angry foes of the law have lambasted Roberts as some sort of traitor, accusing him of making a political decision and saying he wrongly ruled the law as constitutional. The political argument is absurd; Roberts is anything but a weak-willed person, and he has a lifetime appointment that spares him worries about losing his job. 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. And finally, where did people get the idea that constitutionality was something that should be decided by the masses? The most amusing and irritating sign waved about outside the courthouse was the one that cited a poll showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans thought "Obamacare" was unconstitutional. Who cares? Are a majority of Americans constitutional lawyers? This is the whole point of having a carefully selected, nine-member Supreme Court. Yes, they are "elite," and rightly so. That's what qualifies them to make decisions about the constitutionality of our laws.

The high court issues rulings many of us don't like, and sometimes, later courts will reverse them—usually to accommodate changes in social policy, such as gender roles and civil rights. But their authority remains. To expect the court to act like the other two branches of government would be far more dangerous to democracy.

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