For John Roberts, it is Palm Sunday.
Out of relief and gratitude for his having saved Obamacare, he is being compared to John Marshall and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Liberal commentators are burbling that his act of statesmanship has shown us the way to the sunny uplands of a new consensus.
If only Republicans will follow Roberts’ bold and brave example, and agree to new revenues, the dark days of partisan acrimony and tea party intransigence could be behind us.
Yet imagine if Justice Stephen Breyer had crossed over from the liberal bench to join Antonin Scalia, Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy in striking down Obamacare. Those hailing John Roberts for his independence would be giving Breyer a public caning for desertion of principle.
Why did Roberts do it? Why did this respected conservative uphold what still seems to be a dictatorial seizure of power—to order every citizen to buy health insurance or be punished and fined?
Congress can do this, wrote Roberts, because even if President Obama and his solicitor general insist the fine is not a tax, we can call it a tax:
“If a statute has two possible meanings, one of which violates the Constitution, courts should adopt the meaning that does not do so. … If the mandate is in effect just a tax hike on certain taxpayers who do not have health insurance, it may be within Congress’s constitutional power to tax.”
Roberts is saying that if Congress, to stimulate the economy, orders every middle-class American to buy a new car or face a $5,000 fine, such a mandate is within its power.
Now, Congress can indeed offer tax credits for buying a new car. But if a man would prefer to bank his money and not buy a new car, can Congress order him to buy one—and fine him if he refuses?
Clearly, the chief justice was searching for a way not to declare the individual mandate unconstitutional. But to do so, he had to go through the tortured reasoning of redefining as a tax what its author and its chief advocates have repeatedly insisted is not a tax.
Why did he do it? One reason Roberts gives is his innate conservatism.
As he wrote in his opinion:
“We (the Court) possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”
This is a sentiment many of us seek in a jurist in a republic: a disposition to defer to the elected branches to set policy and make law. But Roberts here raises a grave question—about himself.
While it is not the job of the Supreme Court “to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices,” it is the job of the Supreme Court to pass on the constitutionality of laws.
Did Roberts look at that individual mandate and conclude that it passed the constitutionality test? Or did he first decide that he did not want to be the chief justice responsible for destroying the altarpiece of the Obama presidency and sinking that presidency—and then go searching for a rationale to do what he had already decided to do?
Here we enter the area of surmise.
In the view of this writer, Roberts desperately does not want to seen by history as merely a competent but colorless member of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court, another reliable vote in the Scalia camp. He does not want Anthony Kennedy, the swing justice, to be making history, while he is seen as a predictable conservative vote.
John Roberts aspires to be a man of history, to have this court known to historians as “the Roberts Court.” And if there is to be a decisive vote in future great decisions, he wants that vote to be his.
He wants to be seen among the cognitive elite, in this capital city that voted 93-7 for Obama, as a large and independent thinker. And with this decision on Obamacare, for which he will be remembered, he has taken a great leap forward to establishing that new identity.
John Roberts likely has ahead of him a quarter of a century as chief justice. If he wants to be written of as another John Marshall or Oliver Wendell Holmes, and not Roger Taney, he must pay the price the city demands. If he does not wish to be remembered as a tea party justice, he must deliver the goods. And John Roberts just did.
Already they are saying of him that John Roberts has grown.
Liberals will never again see him in the same light. Nor will his old comrades. To attain the first, John Roberts is willing to accept the second. He has made his decision. John Roberts is moving on up.
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