In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett provided a concise summary of the “saving construction” Chief Justice Roberts used to uphold the Obamacare statute. By changing the requirement to buy insurance into an option to pay a penalty, and by making the Medicaid mandate on the states optional as well, the Chief Justice created a revised law he could then deem constitutional. As Prof. Barnett wrote:
By converting the now infamous “individual mandate” into an “option” to buy insurance or pay the remaining “penalty,” he could then uphold the “penalty” as a tax. Then, by similarly rewriting the Medicare requirement being imposed on the states, he was able to “defer” to Congress and uphold the rest of Obamacare. In short, Justice Roberts rewrote the statute so that he could save it in the name of “judicial restraint.”
So what was saved — in the cause of judicial restraint — was a statute judicially re-written, materially different from the one Congress wrote. No one knows if Congress would have passed the rewritten statute in the first place, had it been presented in the form that emerged from the Chief Justice’s opinion: the number of uninsured people covered, the financial cost of the law, and the likely impact on health care are all different from the law Congress enacted. Moreover, in the process, the Chief Justice endorsed a new shared responsibility payment power for Congress that we may see again in the future.