Questions about chief justice's health-care ruling could have lasting impact
Speculation persists over why Chief Justice John Roberts joined liberals to uphold the President Obama's signature health-care reform law, and that could affect the Supreme Court.
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“It is not known why Roberts changed his view on the mandate and decided to uphold the law,” the CBS report says.Skip to next paragraph
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The news report sparked a new round of criticism among conservative legal analysts.
“The fact that this decision was apparently political, rather than legal, completely undermines its legitimacy as a precedent,” said Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and one of the first legal scholars to raise questions about the constitutionality of the health-care reform law.
“Its result can be reversed by the People in November,” he added in a statement, “and its weak tax power holding reversed by any future court without pause.”
The Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act last Thursday.
The decision surprised many conservative analysts who expected the chief justice to side with the court’s conservative wing to strike down the centerpiece of the law, the individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.
How Roberts ruled
At issue in the case was whether Congress overstepped its authority under the Commerce Clause by ordering Americans to engage in commercial transactions (buying insurance), which Congress would then regulate.
Roberts and four other conservative justices concluded that the so-called individual mandate exceeded limits on congressional power. Those five votes would have been enough to invalidate the mandate and establish a clear limit on the expansion of federal power under the Commerce Clause.
That alone could have resolved the case and would have qualified as a landmark decision.
Instead, Roberts sided with the court’s four liberal justices to uphold the health-care reform law as a valid exercise of Congress’s power to raise and collect taxes. In effect, Roberts and the liberal justices concluded that the penalty required in the individual mandate was not a penalty at all, but a tax.
Even though the law was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause, it could still stand because Congress had full authority to enact it as a tax, Roberts announced.
The chief justice also joined with the court’s liberal wing to uphold a major expansion of Medicaid, provided the administration dropped its threat to withdraw all existing Medicaid funding from states that choose to opt out of the Medicaid expansion.
The federal government must give the states a genuine choice of whether to participate in the federal expansion or not, the justices said.
Many conservatives saw a silver lining in the decision, noting that five justices – including Roberts – announced a new limit to expansive claims of power by the federal government under the Commerce Clause. In addition, for the first time ever, the Supreme Court had recognized a limit on coercive conditions Congress could place on federally funded programs administered at the state level.
At the same time, liberals celebrated the high court’s constitutional endorsement of the president’s signature legislative accomplishment, the largest expansion of the nation’s social safety net since the 1960s.
Although the decision seemed to offer something for everyone, it was not the clear victory many were anticipating.
Conservatives looked at Roberts and wondered what went wrong.
Making a Difference