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Roberts ruling on Obamacare rebukes partisanship with moderation

Few doubted the Supreme Court ruling on health care, or Obamacare, would be 5-4. Hardly anyone figured Chief Justice John G. Roberts would swing to uphold the law. His moderation is a measured rebuke to the law's politicization. Bipartisanship is needed on big issues.

By Kurt Shillinger / June 28, 2012

President Obama makes a statement about the Supreme Court decision on his administration's Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) at the White House June 28. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'At a time when the national to-do list is long with urgent and significant issues...the possibility of devoting another Congress to undoing health care runs contrary to the national interest.'

Luke Sharrett/Reuters


St. Louis

Seven years after John G. Roberts was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, the conventional wisdom was settled. He was predictably conservative and, to his detractors, activist and hostile to precedent. Few observers doubted the health-care ruling would be 5-4. Hardly anyone figured that Chief Justice Roberts, and not the more centrist Justice Anthony Kennedy, would provide the swing vote.

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It is hard to overstate the significance of what just happened.

No matter which way the court ruled on the Affordable Care Act, the inevitable immediate effect would be that of a boot to a beehive. A contentious presidential election is underway. The incumbent’s signature legislative accomplishment was on the line. The parties were agitated. Amid the swarm of overheated predictions and pronouncements, however, Roberts’s note of moderation is a carefully measured rebuke.

“It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices,” the chief justice wrote toward the tail end of an introductory civics lesson in the majority’s decision to uphold the law.

To the majority of Americans who voted to elect Barack Obama president, that might sound a little derogatory, but that reading misses the point. By recasting himself in the more modest role of justice-as-umpire in what may prove to be the defining decision of his tenure, Roberts threw the ball back across the street to Congress and closed the courthouse doors to anyone looking for a reliable political ally.

The battle over President Obama’s health care law cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and wasted a lot more time than it should have. There was ample room for compromise. Although the two parties held strong ideological differences, few disagreed with the driving needs for reform: ballooning costs and growing disparities in coverage.

But health care – and most other significant legislative business – ran headlong into a quixotic and divisive Republican strategy to oppose every Obama initiative in the hope of limiting his presidency to one term.

That strategy saw the Roberts court as its trump card. Now the GOP’s hopes rest with gaining the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress in order to repeal the law the court upheld.


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