Historic

Roberts: The Chief Makes History

There will be days and days of analysis – some of it even important – of today’s historic Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, or as those who hate the law say – Obamacare. We’ll hear every possible interpretation and then some.

Here is my initial take on one sliver of the story; the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion upholding the law, went against four other conservatives on the Court with whom he often finds compatibility and maybe – just maybe – wrote himself firmly into the history books.

I think most Court watchers would say that a Chief Justice – any Chief Justice – always wants to be in the majority. Roberts worked hard to get there even while taking pains to throw a rhetorical political bone to those who will see him as an updated version of former Justice David Souter, an appointee of the first George Bush who served to infuriate many conservatives.

As Roberts famously said during his confirmation hearing, “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire… I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”

Today he made good on his umpire statement and admittedly, while it is way too early to make definitive judgments, Roberts has likely also influenced his place in history. In the same way that Chief Justices Charles Evans Hughes in the 1930’s and Earl Warren in the 1950’s ultimately led their Court’s in a series of landmark rulings; rulings that generally supported a more expansive view of federal power, Roberts has parted company with the right wing of the Court and perhaps charted a new course for himself.

Roberts has clearly antagonized conservatives and permitted, at least in one very important case, a more expansive role for the government in health care. He also did it without affirming a more expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause, which really would have wounded the right.

It’s fun, but ultimately futile, to speculate about the inner dynamics of a Court of such sharp divides and strong personalities, but I can speculate that it would have been interesting to overhear the conference where the Chief told Antonin Scalia, Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy that he would write the majority opinion siding with the Court’s four liberals.

The health care story, with all of its political and policy dimensions, is far from a finished story. There is much more to come. But speculating again, when the history of this decision is ultimately written it may well describe John Roberts as the guy who cast a deciding vote on a law that, with all its faults, was aiming to provide health insurance coverage for every American, a goal of many Americans since at least Teddy Roosevelt. Fifty years from now Roberts’ opinion may well be seen as putting him on the right side of history.

Roberts is obviously a serious man and no one reaches the pinnacle of judicial power in the United States who does not appreciate the unique role in our system played by the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court. Roberts has surely read the history and knows we can count the truly great Chiefs on three fingers – Marshall, Hughes and Warren.

History treats that trio well because each led the Court in new ways during tumultuous times and with a determination to break new ground. Each was a highly political judge and passionately independent. Each evolved over time on the bench and ultimately each rejected the notion that the Constitution is a purely static document that can be applied in 2012 the same way it was in 1787.

If nothing else, Chief Justice Roberts may find – he’s a young and energetic 57 with many years left to lead a Court – that his historic decision in NFIB v. Sebelius is a liberating moment for him. Roberts may now have the liberty to find his own path to history, separate from either the four liberals or four conservatives on his Court, and that journey may have begun today.

P.S. – I predicted in passing earlier this week that the Court would strike down the Affordable Care Act. Like Winston Churchill said, I have often had to eat my words and always find it a wholesome diet!

 

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