Commentary Magazine


The Great Miscalculation of John Roberts

Conservatives have been rightly disappointed with the Supreme Court ruling to uphold ObamaCare, but that disappointment has been all the more bitter because the case has been full of unpleasant surprises. Conservatives believed they had two objectives to get ObamaCare overturned: convince a majority of the justices there was no “limiting principle” to the individual mandate that would excuse it from setting precedent on the Commerce Clause, and convince Anthony Kennedy (the assumed swing vote) that because there was no limiting principle, the law could not survive an accurate reading of the Commerce Clause.

They did both, and yet still lost the case, thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to elevate politics over jurisprudence. But now it’s time for Roberts to confront disappointment himself. Roberts believed he was doing two things by upholding ObamaCare: he was settling the issue of whether the mandate is a tax (it is), thus protecting the Commerce Clause, and he was preventing the further delegitimization of the Supreme Court by the Democrats, thus improving its general reputation. He failed on both counts.

Roberts had good reason to believe his decision to surrender to pressure from the Obama administration and reduce the Court’s power as a supposed equal branch would at least stop the assault on the Court. After all, he held up his end of the bargain. The New York Times waited all of two days to rough Roberts up some more:

The Court’s conservatism calls to mind the defiance of the Court in the 1930s when it regularly struck down New Deal statutes during the Great Depression. But there are important differences. The 1930s Court saw itself as preserving established precedents and principles. The Roberts majority does not have that conservative role. Nor does it play the role of the 1960s Court, whose rulings reinforced a relatively liberal trend in politics.

The current conservatives are not preserving a tradition or articulating a new social consensus. Instead, as the legal historian Robert W. Gordon put it, they have regularly been radical innovators, aggressively stepping into political issues to empower the Court itself.

Roberts extended an open hand to the administration and its allies only to find, as a favorite White House metaphor would have it, a clenched fist. But he shouldn’t have been surprised–nor should he be surprised to read the recent polling showing his Court to have lost some of the public’s respect. Apparently, bowing to pressure and issuing a ruling consistent neither with constitutional law nor public opinion won’t endear him to the people.

But Roberts’s ruling should have at least settled the tax issue. After all, the bill only survives because the mandate must be labeled a tax. When White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew made the Sunday morning talk show rounds, things sounded like they were heading in the right direction for Roberts’s authority. On “Fox News Sunday,” Lew said, “When the Supreme Court rules, we have a final answer.”

So the mandate is a tax, then? Not so fast. Lew meant the constitutionality of the law is settled. As for whether it’s a tax, according to Lew, the Court “said it didn’t matter what Congress called it. It was a penalty for 1 percent.” That is most certainly not what the Court said, but Lew was only repeating what the administration has been saying since the ruling. Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters a day after the ruling that “You can call it what you want.” But didn’t Roberts call it a tax? Here Carney unleashes the chutzpah:

“With regard to the penalty as was discussed by Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion, for those who could afford health insurance but choose to remain uninsured — forcing the rest of us to pay for their care — a penalty is administered as part of the Affordable Care Act.”

Conservatives may find this maddening, but the worst part of the Carney story is how the reporter framed the debate. The White House, he wrote, “is aggressively fighting back against Republican claims that ObamaCare contains a tax increase.” (Italics are mine.) Far from settling the question, then, Roberts’s decision has rendered the Court’s opinion irrelevant. The debate about ObamaCare continues as if there were no Supreme Court ruling, only now there’s no judicial oversight waiting on the horizon. Roberts seems to have accomplished nothing with this ruling except diminishing the Court’s standing.