Word had barely come down that the Supreme Court majority was upholding the Affordable Care Act when incensed conservatives began printing up “Impeach John Roberts” T-shirts and a hacker had altered the chief justice’s title on his Wikipedia page to “Chief Traitor of the United States.”
On a freshly minted “Impeach John Roberts” Facebook page, one tea party “patriot” wrote, “Welcome to fascism. Thanks to this horrible decision from the 4 liberal justices and John Roberts there is zero limit to what the government can force us to do.”
Outside of the perpetually alarmed right wing loony bin, however, Roberts was receiving praise for acting as the fair umpire he promised to be when he was confirmed by the Senate. Of all the major players with much to win or lose in the challenge to the Democrats’ monumental healthcare law, Roberts may have gained the most.
Obviously, he will not be impeached, no matter how loud the howling from the hard right. Instead, he has improved his reputation and begun building a balanced legacy as chief justice.
Until this week, his critics on the left dismissed Roberts as just one more predictable, partisan vote in the Republican faction of the high court. But, having joined in striking down much of Arizona’s immigration law on Monday and siding with the court’s four liberals on the healthcare law on Thursday, that caricature has been erased.
By taking charge of the healthcare ruling, Roberts asserted his leadership of the court while fashioning the decision to match his own philosophy. He avoided the peril of overturning a landmark piece of legislation by switching the key premise on which it was being defended. The core element of the law is the requirement that all Americans must obtain healthcare insurance. Those who can afford it but refuse to buy it will be penalized with a fine. Supporters said this mandate was permitted by the commerce clause of the Constitution. Detractors said the mandate was an unconstitutional expansion of government power that, if allowed, would mean, as the tea party scribe wrote, “there is zero limit to what the government can force us to do.”
Roberts agreed with his fellow conservatives that the mandate should not be justified as part of the congressional responsibility to regulate interstate commerce, but he reasoned that the fine for failing to buy health insurance falls well within the power of Congress to levy taxes and, therefore, the mandate was legal and constitutional. Court liberals probably did not like the implicit limitation Roberts was placing on the commerce clause, but a win is a win and they fell in line behind his opinion.
President Obama was thrilled to see his administration’s premier legislative achievement upheld, especially after so many predictions that it would never survive the scrutiny of a conservative court (and after CNN and Fox News prematurely and erroneously reported the court had struck down the law). Obama will now have a second chance to sell his healthcare scheme to a skeptical electorate, and the stamp of approval from the Supreme Court should make that an easier task.
Mitt Romney may not be entirely upset by the outcome, either, because he can now run as the only man who can kill "Obamacare" (as long as voters do not begrudge him the fact that he is the godfather of the healthcare mandate, having instituted the same mechanism in Massachusetts when he was governor). But, in the long run, no matter who wins the presidential election, Republicans will have a much harder time getting rid of the central elements of the healthcare act – access to coverage for people with preexisting conditions, limits to what insurance companies can charge, inclusion of young adults on their parents’ policies, guaranteed coverage for preventative care, no limits on payouts for people with long-term illnesses. The Supreme Court could have made it easy on Republicans by doing the job for them. Now, they will risk the wrath of voters if and when they try.
Ironic as it may be, history may one day call Roberts the savior of Obamacare.