It is useful to remember that, in the run-up to the health-care ruling, one strong subtext of discussion and analysis was what a decision striking down President Obama’s health-care law would do to the court itself. Would the court, under those circumstances, be vulnerable to the charge that it had become as politicized as the other branches of government?
Fearing defeat, Democrats were preparing to make the court a target in the fall election. They were connecting the dots, from the
Bush v. Gore ruling that handed the presidency to George W. Bush, to the
Citizens United decision that helped unleash a torrent of big-money contributions in this year’s election cycle (a huge share of the money going to Republican super PACs), and, finally, to health care and a decision that would have been seen as toppling the president’s signature first-term accomplishment.
No Supreme Court is immune from the political currents swirling at any given time. But the assumption of most Americans is that the court, of the three branches of government, should be insulated from partisan politics and careful to protect itself from being seen as aiding or abetting those partisan wars. Its decisions may offend one side or the other, but its legitimacy should remain inviolate.
Had a majority of the justices struck down Obamacare, the court — fairly or unfairly — would have become a bigger issue in the presidential campaign than usual and in ways that could have been damaging to its authority.
How much the court’s place and reputation entered into Roberts’s thinking may never be known. Someday, the full story of how he found his way to writing a majority opinion on the health-care case with the four liberal justices may become known. Legal and political scholars would love to know how it happened and have been speculating in the absence of hard information.
The opinion Roberts wrote was, in the estimation of some legal experts, either tortured or fiendishly clever in maneuvering toward an outcome that upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act while attempting to adhere to conservative principles aimed at restraining the power of the federal government.
One can only imagine how Obama, the former constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, analyzed the health-care opinion on Thursday and how he evaluated the motivations of the chief justice who, surprising to some, handed him a major legal and political victory in the middle of his tight reelection campaign.