The rule of law died today. (Or maybe yesterday.)
So declared an official from the conservative Heartland Institute, not to be outdone by the somewhat less definitive but equally gloomy pronouncement from the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, headlined: “American Freedom Strangled.”
There was bound to be a gnashing of teeth and an overuse of death metaphors no matter what the Supreme Court decided on the Affordable Care Act. Liberals and Democrats were spared the hand-wringing only because a slim majority of justices — including Bush-appointed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — upheld the Obama administration’s signature health-care program.
But a vital truth has been lost in the Twitter- and cable-fueled frenzy for immediate reactions and instant analysis. And it’s this: The country has experienced its share of presumably earth-shattering decisions before without catastrophic consequences.
Take, for instance, the court’s 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans. No one — as far as we know — has filed for, or much less obtained, a license to marry their pet goat, a prediction made by a Colorado Springs pastor after the justices struck down a Colorado law that discriminated against gays and lesbians. No human-goat nuptials after the justices invalidated a Texas law that criminalized gay sex, either.
The high court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia has not paved the way for an onslaught of grotesque genetic mutations in biracial babies. The justices in that case repudiated a Virginia law that banned interracial marriages, even though the state claimed it was a legitimate means to prevent “physiological and psychological evils.” (One Virginia sheriff at the time compared the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving — he white and she black — to a union of different species of birds, bound to lead to abnormalities in the offspring.)
And the District, despite dire predictions from often left-leaning gun-control advocates, continues to experience relatively low homicide rates even though its strict gun laws were invalidated by the Supreme Court four years ago after finding that the Constitution recognized an individual right to keep and bear arms.
There have, of course, been decisions that continue to fuel discontent. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a woman’s right to privacy, is perhaps the seminal example of our age. Abortion continues to be a political and social lightning rod, and many lament what they believe is the loss of innocent life whenever such a procedure is performed. Still, the republic stands, the body politic continues to function (as it were) and the dialogue continues.
More often, the American public comes to accept — even embrace — decisions that were once derided by some as monumental and even dangerous shifts in the social or political tectonic plates that undergird the country. Think: 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which rejected the segregationist notion that separate but equal school facilities for black children were acceptable. Think: 1963’s Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed indigent criminal defendants the right to counsel, and 1966’s Miranda v. Arizona, which gave rise to the much-quoted “You have the right to remain silent” — a pair of decisions that were criticized in some quarters as pandering to criminals. And think: 1974’s United States v. Nixon, which essentially proclaimed that no man, not even the president, is above the law, to the dismay of those of who saw the ruling as an erosion of the legitimate powers of the chief executive.
These cases were all based on interpretations of the Constitution that cannot be undone by Congress. But the Supreme Court’s decision in the health-care case leaves room for Congress to revise or annihilate the program. It’s a possibility not lost on House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “Today’s ruling underscores the urgency of repealing this harmful law in its entirety.”
The republic stands. And the dialogue continues.