As the first anniversary of the controversial national health care reform legislation – or more correctly health insurance reform legislation – came and went a while back there was increasing acceptance of the notion that the U.S. Supreme Court will get the last word on the issue that continues to shape our politics.
That word will likely be handed down across the street from the U.S. Capitol right in the middle of the next presidential election campaign.
One of the most vocal defenders of the controversial law, New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, admitted recently what many are thinking: the Supreme Court will overturn the law, or at least the portion that mandates individual coverage. “If lightning strikes, and it turns out that as many of us believe, the Supreme Court turns out to be a third political branch of government and they strike down the mandate — big deal,” Weiner said. “Big deal!” Weiner argues that rejection of the individual mandate requirement will re-open the debate about the so called “public option.” We’ll see.
It will be fascinating if, as Weiner and others predict, the nine justices of the nation’s highest court enter this political thicket. There was for a time in our history a self-imposed reluctance on the part of the court to stick its nose far into the “political” territory of the Congress and the president. Barring a sharp question of Constitutionality, judges once thought it the “conservative” position to defer to the elected branches of government on questions of broad policy.
Conservatives would argue that those days of real judicial restraint became sand through the hour glass during the “activist” days of the Warren Court in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Liberals argue, on the other hand, that it has been “conservative” courts, beginning most importantly during the Reagan Administration, that have ranged far and wide over the political territory that some suggest is better left to legislators and to the one person in our system who is elected by all the people – the president.
But whether you consider it “activist” that the Supreme Court, almost eagerly it seemed, stepped into the Florida recount in 2000 and ultimately ruled in a way that put George W. Bush in the White House, or that Chief Justice Earl Warren worked hard to engineer a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1954 to overturn state laws allowing racial segregation, the fact is that the Supreme Court – and particularly the very conservative majority on the Roberts Court – is poised to impact the political narrative of 2012. It has happened before. The Brown v. Board of Education decision on segregation, and subsequent Congressional efforts to enforce and expand on the decision, were arguably a catalyst for the systematic and still continuing swing of the southern United States from the Democratic to Republican parties. Richard Nixon’s now famous – or infamous – “southern strategy” in 1968 successfully capitalized on the sense that “activist” liberal judges were remaking the country in a frightening way.
Earlier in the 20th Century, another unanimous Supreme Court, this time in 1935 and with a conservative majority, happily overturned the cornerstone of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms by rejecting much of the National Industrial Recovery Act. FDR was livid, particularly with “liberal” judges like Louis Brandeis who were willing to reject his reforms that enjoyed broad public and Congressional support. Roosevelt contended the “nine old men” on the 1930’s Court were intent on imposing on the country a “horse and bugging” definition of interstate commerce, while rejecting the needs of small business and individuals. Safely re-elected in 1936, Roosevelt tried to get even by “packing the court.” He lost badly and the political bitterness and impact of that fight lingered for years.
In a splendidly provocative and highly entertaining new book, The Conservative Assault on the Constitution, Erwin Chemerinsky, the founding dean of the UC Irvine Law School, and a widely respected Constitutional scholar, argues that it is conservative judges, at least since the days of Nixon, who have done the most to change the way we think about – and judges apply – the 21st Century Constitution. “
Since 1968,” Chemerinsky writes, “conservatives have sought to remake constitutional law and they largely have succeeded. They initially set out to overturn the decisions of the Warren Court, but soon began to aggressively pursue a vision of constitutional law that consistently favors government power over individual rights … and the interests of businesses over individual employees and consumers. Because decisions come one at a time over years and because the Court never overruled the Roe v. Wade abortion decision (though it came within one vote of doing so), it is easy to underestimate how successful the conservative assault on the Constitution has been.”
Professor Chemerinskey cites numerous cases, involving everything from the rights of criminal defendants to what he calls the “re-segregation” of American schools, to buttress his point. Perhaps the highest profile recent example – Citizens United – found the Roberts Court, apparently with little hesitation, overturning a century of settled law when it allowed, on First Amendment grounds, unlimited and unregulated corporate money to re-enter American politics.
Whether you agree or not that “conservative judges” have become the real judicial activists, it’s indisputable that “liberals” have lost the battle to frame broad political battles around the court’s make-up and decisions. Richard Nixon drew the political lines that have defined more liberal justices as the activists, while conservatives talk almost exclusively of Justices like Roberts, Scalia and Thomas as staunch defenders of the Constitution, motivated by real “judicial restraint.”
We will soon see how well that framing hangs together when a conservative Roberts Court overturns the liberal health policy reform of a Democratic Congress and president. Barack Obama already had his mini-FDR moment when he directly criticized, to the justice’s faces, the Court’s Citizens decision. The president may soon have reason, in the middle of his re-election campaign, to take on the “activist Roberts Court” again and once again the Supreme Court – appointed for life and presumably insulated from the daily grind of partisan politics – could dramatically impact American politics.