Gavel Grab

Editorial: On Health Care Act, Court Legitimacy Preserved

A deluge of diverse editorials and punditry followed the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. One theme focused on the court’s avoidance of a ruling split totally along partisan lines, which could have undermined the court’s legitimacy.

When the court divided 5-4 in upholding the central provision of the Affordable Care Act, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., an appointee of a Republican president, and four liberals who were appointed by Democrats joined sides on Thursday to determine the outcome.

A Washington Post editorial said, “In an editorial Thursday, we said that many Americans would be watching the court to see whether, at a time of extreme partisanship, it could craft a decision that impressed as an act of law, not politics. In our view, the court passed that test of legitimacy.”

At the New York Times Opinionator blog, Linda Greenhouse discussed Chief Justice Roberts’s decision upholding the so-called individual mandate as a permissible tax, after he found it impermissible under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause:

“His decision to call the mandate a tax and to provide a clearly reluctant fifth vote for upholding it as within the Congressional taxing power was a deeply pragmatic call that saved the Affordable Care Act. Certainly by no coincidence, it also saved the Supreme Court from the stench of extreme partisanship that has hung over the health care litigation from the moment more than two years ago that Republican state officials raced one another to the federal courts to try to erase what they had been unable to block.”

If the court had both scaled back Congress’s commerce clause powers and struck down the entire legislation, Fortune Senior Editor Roger Parloff wrote, it “would have precipitated something close to a constitutional crisis, leaving roughly half the country and a far greater percentage of the legal profession harboring profound skepticism about the Court’s political impartiality and good faith.”

“Why did Roberts do It? To Save the court,” David L. Franklin wrote in Slate.

In other editorials and commentary, a New York Times editorial said the “moderate ruling” by the court “could make it harder for Congress to pass laws based on the Constitution’s commerce clause.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial lamented a “new precedent [that] is grim.” It said, “The remarkable decision upholding the Affordable Care Act is shot through with confusion—the mandate that’s really a tax, except when it isn’t, and the government whose powers are limited and enumerated, except when they aren’t. One thing is clear: This was a one-man show, and that man is John Roberts.”

George Will identified in the ruling a “Conservatives’ Consolation Prize.” Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post, “The Umpire Strikes Back.” The Post’s Ruth Marcus spotlighted President Obama’s vote against confirming Chief Justice Roberts in a column entitled “Obama’s Ironic Victory.” David Brooks, eyeing Chief Justice Roberts, wrote in The New York Times about “Modesty and Audacity.”

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