Stand by for American history

The United States Supreme Court hears arguments this week in two cases involving same-sex marriage that could make civil rights history.  For those who can get beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea of same-sex marriage, who are interested in the nuts and bolts of how the court operates, how this court operates, who want to be able to read the reports of the oral arguments or listen to the arguments themselves (yes, listen—the same day!) critically and develop their own insight into what’s happening and what the results may be, check out Emily Bazelon’s post in Slate today.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the Supreme Court will dive into back-to-back arguments about gay marriage. These cases that are probably the biggest of the term, and certainly the sexiest. First up is an hour of Hollingsworth v. Perry, the suit challenging the constitutionality of California’s voter-approved gay marriage ban. Next comes an hour and 50 minutes on United States v. Windsor, which takes on the definition of marriage in the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That definition—the union of a man and a woman—denies gay couples more than 1,000 federal benefits that come with marriage, relating to everything from inheritance taxes to health insurance for veterans, even when their marriages are legally recognized in the states they live in.

The arguments will feature top lawyers including Ted Olson (former Bush solicitor general, pro-gay marriage), Paul Clement (former Bush solicitor general, anti-gay marriage), Donald Verrilli Jr. (Obama solicitor general, pro-gay marriage, though the Obama administration is still enforcing DOMA), and Vicki Jackson (Harvard law professor who will argue that the Obama administration doesn’t belong in court). What should we watch for to gauge how these cases will come out? Here’s my checklist.

Meanwhile, in case you missed it, here are the stories about the amicus briefs from the White House and Bill Clinton,  now both in favor despite earlier efforts to the contrary, and from major businesses that have always tried assiduously to avoid taking sides on anything as controversial as same-sex marriage, but now argue that the ban hurts business.  Even prominent Republicans, including Clint Eastwood, are making a case in favor of same-sex marriage.  The times, they are a-changin’…we should find out in June, when the decisions are expected to be announced, just how much.

Health insurance law ruling will refocus fall campaign–away from the most important issues!

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.

(In fact, that is the point made—the only point made—in the story I saw when I clicked on the lead headline on FoxNews.comthis afternoon.)

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:

Even Fred Flintstone was down with having a gay old time

Quick follow-up on the New York gay marriage vote, while waiting for a rational explanation from those in the “states’ rights” crowd who support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prevent states from exerting their rights on this issue:

–hooray for the mayor of New York’s unequivocal support for gay marriage: it’s the right thing to do, opposing it is the same as opposing women’s rights or civil rights or the abolition of slavery, the law won’t require religions to perform or sanction a same sex marriage…and although people are free to belong to any religious group American society as a whole places its faith in the Constitution, not some set of religious laws.

–the Obama Administration isn’t defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and when House Republicans threaten to fight an 81-year-old woman over it even the lawyers bail out.

–the gay marriage issue helped a president win re-election in 2004; now some political pros think the Democrats can use gay marriage to hammer Republicans in 2012 because it could pull traditional Republicans away from the right-wing Christian evangelicals taking over the GOP.

–and looking into the future far beyond 2012, how many of us have even thought about how all this kerfuffle over gay rights will be viewed by our descendants?