Let the predictable caterwauling begin: today the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with Chief Justice John Roberts leading the majority on the 5-4 decision.
The heart of the disagreement over the law is its requirement that each of us Americans purchase health insurance, and the court has now ruled that the requirement does not violate the Constitution.
During oral arguments in March, conservative justices indicated they were skeptical about the individual mandate, the provision in the 2,700-page health-care law that requires nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a financial penalty.
Arguing the case for the Obama administration, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. defended the law as a constitutional exercise of congressional power under the charter’s commerce clause to regulate interstate commerce. He said lawmakers were regulating health insurance to deal with the problem of millions of people who lack coverage and therefore shift costs to the insured when they cannot pay for their medical care.
Paul D. Clement, representing Florida and 25 other states objecting to the health-care law, argued that Congress exceeded its power in passing the law, which he said compels people to buy a product.
The court rejected Obama administration’s commerce-clause argument, but ruled 5-4 that Congress nevertheless “has the power to impose” the individual mandate under its taxing authority. The provision “need not be read to do more than impose a tax,” the opinion said. “This is sufficient to sustain it.”
Neither the plaintiffs in the case nor the Obama administration had argued before the court that the individual mandate was a tax.
The decision means that implementation of the new law should proceed, with the aim to get health insurance coverage for tens of millions of currently uninsured Americans; these are the people who currently access the most expensive health care around through emergency rooms and charity care, medical care that those of us who pay taxes are already footing the bill for anyway.
So, that’s settled. Or not. Arguably, the real heart of the disagreement is that this is Obama’s plan, and people who had supported similar health care insurance law revisions in the past (like the conservative Heritage Foundation and many Republicans; like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, W. Mitt Romney, Gov.) opposed this one because it was Obama’s plan. People like Mitch McConnell, and others who have proudly and publicly asserted that they will do whatever is required to make Barack Obama a one-term president (for whatever reason).
The dissent in the case will only fuel their fire: it argues that the Obamacare mandate that individuals purchase a product—health insurance—and its threatened denial of some Medicaid funding to states for non-compliance both unconstitutionally exceed government authority, and that since those provisions are crucial to making the system work, the entire statute should be tossed out…hmm, not much room for compromise here, I guess.
It’s unfortunate that the divide on the court was (except for Roberts) by perceived political ideology—for many people that’s going to reinforce the idea that the justices make their decisions based on politics rather than the law, and that will reinforce the left/right division in politics. But it could have been worse: as David Franklin from DePaul University’s College of Law argues in Slate, Roberts found a way to uphold ACA in order to save the integrity of the Supreme Court.
A 5-4 decision to strike down Obamacare along party lines, whatever its reasoning, would have been received by the general public as yet more proof that the court is merely an extension of the nation’s polarized politics. Add the fact that the legal challenges to the individual mandate were at best novel and at worst frivolous, and suddenly a one-vote takedown of the ACA looks like it might undermine the court’s very legitimacy.
And, of course, health care is now likely to become the distraction center for a presidential campaign that I’d hoped would hold its focus on employment and the federal budget.
(We don’t need to spend time discussing how, in their rush to be first with the news, CNN and Fox both got the story completely wrong, do we? Fish in a barrel…)
Here’s a smattering of the early reports on the court ruling, for your edification and delight:
- Obama: Supreme Court ruling on health care a victory for Americans, CNN
- Supreme Court upholds most of health care law, including mandate, McClatchy Newspapers
- Obama health-care law: Supreme Court upholds it in entirety, Christian Science Monitor
- Supreme Court upholds individual mandate, ObamaCare survives, FoxNews.com
- Obama’s Health-Care Overhaul Upheld by U.S. Supreme Court, Bloomberg News
- US Supreme Court upholds healthcare reform law, BBC
- Liberty lost? The Supreme Court punts, CNN
- Obama’s Supreme Court Health Care Victory Hard To Overstate, NPR
- How Might the Health Care Ruling Play in November?, New York Times
- A Re-Examination of Roberts’ Legacy?, New York Times