The Day After…
Well, it’s the day after Obamacare was ruled Constitutional. I thought I would wake up feeling much like yesterday: dejected. But a funny thing happened. I read a couple of pieces that left me optimistic about the long term effects of yesterday’s ruling.
The first one was a great article by Sean Trende, over at RealClearPolitics. Not only does he juxtapose the Roberts opinion with Chief Justice John Marshall’s in the Marbury v Madison case, but he also offers some interesting insights:
1. The law still has a good chance of not being implemented.
Let’s start with Roberts’ presumed crass political considerations. Namely, as a conservative Republican, he would not want the health care law implemented. But if Mitt Romney wins the November election, it is highly likely that Republicans will win the Senate as well. Right now, Romney probably has no worse than a 50-50 chance of being elected. I honestly don’t think in the long run this changes things that much. The next jobs report will have a much greater impact on Obama’s re-election bid over the long haul than this decision.
If Republicans win the Senate and presidency, the law is doomed. They will use reconciliation to repeal it, or to gut it. In fact, since the court essentially allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion, there’s a chance that the bill would no longer reduce the deficit if a large state like Texas opted out. This makes the use of reconciliation much easier.
2. Doctrinally, The Federalist Society got everything it wanted.
But judicial conservatives who are not just concerned about the outcome got more than they could have reasonably hoped for. Doctrinally speaking, this case will likely be remembered as a watershed decision for conservatives.
Five justices just signaled to lower courts that, but for the unique taxation power argument, they were prepared to rule that a major act of Congress that plainly touched upon economic activity exceeded Congress’ commerce powers. Right now, liberals are seemingly too busy celebrating their win, and conservatives bemoaning their loss, to realize the significance of this.
None of the liberals’ previous arguments about the upshot of such a ruling are rendered invalid simply because the chief justice decided that this was a tax (and almost everyone agreed that if Congress had just called it a tax, it would have been constitutional). The court just constricted its Commerce Clause jurisprudence; if liberal commentators are correct, they did so by a lot. It doesn’t matter today, but 10 years from now, it will probably be a different story.
The most important aspect of the ruling, however, comes with respect to the spending clause. Seven justices just agreed to real limits on Congress’ ability to attach strings to legislation. This is significant. Until today, these limits were hypothetical, and it was believed that Congress could, for example, remove all Medicaid funding as a punishment for a state’s refusal to comply with the Medicaid expansion. I did not expect the court to rule the way it did here, much less to do so by a 7-2 vote.
To put it differently, if this ruling had a different result — if Roberts hadn’t decided that this was a tax — this decision would be regarded as a debacle for a liberal interpretation of the Constitution. It is no less so simply because the Affordable Care Act was upheld on alternative grounds.
3. The chief justice has built up some political capital.
Barack Obama was forced to go on television and praise the court’s ruling. In so doing, he validated — at least implicitly — one of the most pro-state’s rights decisions in recent times.
Roberts has basically done what John Marshall did: Insulate the court from criticism of bald partisan bias and infidelity to, as he once put it, calling balls and strikes. He’s earning plaudits from the left. Though the right is grumbling, I suspect they won’t be doing so for long.
4. This matters in the long run — a lot.
This is not the last battle to be fought on the Roberts Court. It might not even be the most significant. In the next term, for example, the court is being asked to reconsider its affirmative action jurisprudence. There are almost certainly five votes to overturn court rulings from a decade ago upholding some forms of affirmative action.
Following that, the court will face a variety of tough decisions. There are probably five votes to uproot the entire campaign finance system, a decision that would make Citizens United look like small fry. And there are probably five votes to invalidate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Over at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein quotes Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett (one of the key legal minds behind the opposition to the ACA): “All the arguments that the law professors said were frivolous were affirmed by a majority of the court today. A majority of the court endorsed our constitutional argument about the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. Yet we end up with the opposite outcome. It’s just weird.” Prof Barnett adds: “For those of us who oppose the Affordable Care Act as a policy matter, this is a bad day…for those of us in this fight to preserve the limits of constitutional government, this is not a bad day.”
So perhaps in the end, Chief Justice Roberts will end up a legal genius for this ruling. Time will tell. But in the meantime, I feel much better today than I did yesterday. And that’s a start.