In the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons (an Oscar-winning adaptation of a play about the life of Sir Thomas More), an ambitious young lawyer named Richard Rich perjures himself so that the Crown can secure More’s conviction for treason. (Sir Thomas More was the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England who refused to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and resigned rather than take an oath declaring the king to be the head of the Church of England.) Rich is promoted to Attorney General of Wales as a reward. Upon learning of Rich’s connivance, More plaintively asks, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?”
So it is with John Roberts, who like his namesake Justice Owen Roberts changed his vote on Obamacare in service to political considerations. (That’s actually unfair to Owen Roberts because his so-called “switch in time that saved nine,” which provided the decisive vote to uphold the New Deal after years of reversals, came before FDR announced his Court-packing scheme.)
That is, at some point between the justices’ initial conference the Friday of Obamacare-argument week in late March and when the first opinions were circulated in early June, Chief Justice Roberts changed from striking down the individual mandate, and with it the whole law, to upholding on the flimsy reed of the taxing power. Roberts’s opinion
rewriting the law “construing” the mandate as a tax is unconvincing, to say the least – even the liberal justices weren’t so enthusiastic about it, though they were happy to go along with any ratification of federal power – but it’s now apparent that he was simply grasping at any way to uphold Obamacare while not expanding the Commerce Clause.
There are many theories on why he did this – I don’t think it’s because Jeffrey Rosen wrote an op-ed, or even because President Obama and Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) made speeches – but they mainly boil down to the idea of wanting to preserve the Supreme Court’s reputation as an impartial arbiter, one that doesn’t get involved in highly charged political disputes during a presidential election year.
Now, let’s set aside the issue of whether Roberts’s split-the-baby opinion actually helps the Court’s institutional integrity – some polls already show a decline in approval for the Court from what was already a near-historic low – and consider why this sort of reputation-preservation matters and whether it’s worth torturing the law to accomplish it. The way I see it, the federal judiciary (with the Supreme Court at its apex) is our system of government’s premier counter-majoritarian institution, holding the political branches’ feet to the constitutional fire. Courts are supposed to decide the law and let the political chips fall where they may. Implicit in the Constitution’s careful separation of powers –and made explicit in the foundational case of Marbury v. Madison – is the idea of judicial review, that federal courts have the obligation, when “cases or controversies” are brought before them, to review them against the Constitution and, if they go beyond enumerated federal power or violate protected rights, to strike them down.
That’s why it’s so important that courts be independent and free from political pressure. Particularly with regard to major controversies that polarize the nation, courts – and especially the Supreme Court – need their reputation for dispassionate and independent legal reasoning so that their often unpopular opinions are followed and respected, rather than fomenting resistance and revolution.
The health care cases – or Health Care Cases, as they may become known – presented nothing if not one such singular moment. People across the country were anxiously awaiting a ruling, and would have accepted (if bitterly) a 5-4 decision on Commerce Clause grounds. I obviously think that upholding the mandate, and with it the rest of Obamacare, would have been wrong – and unpopular. Striking it down would similarly have provoked heated and fervent criticism, albeit only from the minority of Americans (but a majority of legal and media elites) who support the law. But in any event, the Court’s decision would have “simply” been a very high profile legal ruling, just the sort of thing for which the Court needs all that accrued institutional respect and gravitas.
What we have instead, however, is a political decision dressed up in legal robes, judicially enacting a law Congress did not pass and would not have passed, all to “save” the Court to live to fight another day. But what is that other day? I just don’t understand what Roberts is saving the Court for if not the sort of big, tough case that Obamacare exemplified.
In short, John Roberts, in refraining from making that hard balls-and-strikes call he discussed at his confirmation hearings, has sold out his legal soul for even less than Wales.