In Other Words
By William A. Collins
Health law’s safe, As it can be; Now don’t blame, This Court on me.
Many Republicans expressed shock, even betrayal, when Chief Justice John Roberts himself turned out to be the Supreme Court’s turncoat Republican who upheld the Affordable Care Act. Pundits had predicted that Kennedy could make that move. Not me.
While Roberts may be a remarkably malevolent force in American jurisprudence, he’s no dope. With the current court prefaced by his last name, he knew his legacy was at stake. That’s no small matter for any self-absorbed Washington power player.
Roberts surely realized that he had already led “his Court” to one of the worst and most damaging decisions since Dred Scott. I’m talking of course about Citizens United, the landmark case that green-lighted the corporate political contributions now flooding campaign treasure chests.
For most of the Republican justices, all this was scarcely a problem. But for Roberts the equation was different. Sure, he wanted to do the bidding of corporations and the 1 percent as much as the next guy, but this was his Court, not theirs.
With Citizens United already menacing his judicial record, Roberts knew he couldn’t strike down the nation’s first steps toward universal health care in decades without making the Roberts Court look terrible. Overturning the Obama administration’s landmark health reform law was simply asking too much of a loyal but still ego-sensitive conservative.
And so the chief justice sought an escape route. He succeeded by labeling the bill a tax. Of course the mounting public dissatisfaction with government isn’t entirely Roberts’ fault, key player though he may be. The Great Recession and the refusal of Congress to deal with it are central as well. Americans really are tired of losing jobs and seeing their savings erode while unpayable mortgages and student loans destroy the middle class.
No, John Roberts can’t be blamed for all that, but had he scuttled the Affordable Care Act he would have become an iconic target for progressives. Their verbal pitchforks would have had his name engraved on them. But he saved himself from irreparable infamy in the final hour, at least for now.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. otherwords.org