President Franklin D. Roosevelt reacted with fury when major legislative pillars of his New Deal were declared unconstitutional by a Supreme Court anchored by four ideological conservatives. He lashed out at the justices, accusing them of practicing crass politics disguised as constitutional law.
Seventy-five years ago last month, FDR proposed his ill-fated court-packing plan that would have allowed him to stack the court with new appointees sympathetic to the New Deal.
Will history be repeated this term when the Roberts court decides the constitutional fate of President Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Health Care Act?
The justices will hear five-and-a-half hours of arguments over three days, March 26-28, on the healthcare law and deliver their judgment by the end of the term. If the court strikes down all or part of the law, Obama, like FDR before him, will almost certainly denounce the court’s decision. After all, he has already had practice in publicly criticizing the court. At his 2010 State of the Union address, with the justices sitting directly in front of him, he accused the court majority in the Citizens United decision of reversing a century of constitutional law to open “the floodgates for special interests… to spend without limit in our elections.”
Besides the willingness of both FDR and Obama to criticize the court, there are other parallels between the two Democratic presidents. Both came to office as liberal reformers who envisioned a large role for the federal government in promoting the nation’s welfare. But in defending their policies, they revealed their very different political styles and temperaments.
Personally, I am delighted that Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act. But, I am troubled that the fate of U.S. healthcare turned on one man’s opinion. This is not how things are supposed to work in a democracy.
Healthcare represents 16 percent of our economy. It touches all of our lives. If we don’t like the laws our elected representatives pass, we can vote them out of office. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry whether its decisions reflect the will of the people. The Justices are appointed for life. This is why they are not charged with setting public policy.
How then, did the Court wind up with the power to affirm or overturn the ACA?
The media shapes our expectations
As I suggested when oral arguments began back in March, a “media narrative” drove the case to the Court – a fiction that caught on, in the press, on television, and in the blogosphere, where it began to take on a reality of its own. A handful of “state attorneys general and governors” saw “a political opportunity” and floated the idea that the law might be unconstitutional. The media picked up the story, repeated the heated rhetoric, and “fanned the flames … Before long, what constitutional experts thought was a non-story became a Supreme Court case.”
Today a majority of the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare in recognition of its importance as a key initiative of the Obama administration. The big surprise, for many, was the vote by the Chief Justice of the Court, John Roberts, to join with the Court’s four liberals.
Roberts’ decision is not without precedent. Seventy-five years ago, another Justice Roberts – no relation to the current Chief Justice – made a similar switch. Justice Owen Roberts had voted with the Court’s conservative majority in a host of 5-4 decisions invalidating New Deal legislation, but in March of 1937 he suddenly switched sides and began joining with the Court’s four liberals. In popular lore, Roberts’ switch saved the Court – not only from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s threat to pack it with justices more amenable to the New Deal but, more importantly, from the public’s increasing perception of the Court as a partisan, political branch of government.
Chief Justice John Roberts isn’t related to his namesake but the current Roberts’ move today marks a close parallel. By joining with the Court’s four liberals who have been in the minority in many important cases – including the 2010 decision, Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission, which struck down constraints on corporate political spending as being in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech – the current Justice Roberts may have, like his earlier namesake, saved the Court from a growing reputation for political partisanship.
The Supreme Court’s decision upholding the ACA is deliciously ironic. The “individual mandate”–an idea promoted for everyone in the 90s and for Massachusettians (?) in the 2000s by the arm of the Republican party known as the Heritage Foundation–was found to be legal. But not as a mandate, instead as a tax.
Put aside for a minute the dreadful political contortions required to get this quasi-universal health insurance bill past Congress in the first place. Put aside the fact that the supposedly non-political Supreme Court hands down decisions time after time that are a pure reflection of the exceedingly public extreme political views of its justices. Put aside for a minute the fact that the ACA has undeniably kickstarted a round of changes in the health care delivery and insurance system that at least has the potential to lower costs and improve care, and that the luncay of politics meant we nearly lost that momentum.
Instead focus on what the Supremes have done. They’ve cut through decades of rhetoric about how we pay for health insurance and clarified it thus: we pay for health care via taxes–whether they are private taxes on employers and employees (and now individuals) or public ones on citizens.
The public’s growing disdain of the Supreme Court increases the odds that a majority will uphold the constitutionality of Obamacare.
The latest New York Times CBS Poll shows just 44 percent of Americans approve the job the Supreme Court is doing. Fully three-quarters say justices’ decisions are sometimes influenced by their personal political views.
The trend is clearly downward. Approval of the Court reached 66 percent in the late 1980s, and by 2000 had slipped to around 50 percent.
As the Times points out, the decline may stem in part from Americans’ growing distrust in recent years of major institutions in general and the government in particular.
But it’s just as likely to reflect a sense that the Court is more political, especially after it divided in such partisan ways in the 5-4 decisions Bush v. Gore (which decided the 2000 presidential race) and Citizen’s United (which in 2010 opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign spending).
Americans’ diminishing respect for the Court can be heard on the right and left of our increasingly polarized political spectrum.
A few months ago, while a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich stated that the political branches were “not bound” by the Supreme Court. Gingrich is known for making bizarre claims. The remarkable thing about this one was the silence with which it was greeted, not only by other Republican hopefuls but also by Democrats.
Last week I was on a left-leaning radio talk show whose host suddenly went on a riff about how the Constitution doesn’t really give the Supreme Court the power to overturn laws for being unconstitutional, and it shouldn’t have that power.
In 2009, when someone asked Nancy Pelosi a question implying that health reform legislation might be unconstitutional, she replied: “Are you serious?”
Pelosi wasn’t alone. At the outset, many legal scholars considered the challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) both “implausible” and “frivolous.”
But over the next two years, the notion that state courts might strike down the ACA took on a life of its own. Most people had only a hazy idea of what was actually in the legislation; nevertheless the idea of “health reform” inspired heated rhetoric. Soon, state attorneys general and governors responded to the political opportunities, banding together to make what Slate Senior Editor Dahlia Lithwick calls, “novel arguments in the form of what was always a constitutional Hail Mary pass … It’s no accident that until the lower district courts started striking down the act, none of the challengers really believed that they could succeed.”
Yet somehow, this week, the highest court in the land is hearing oral arguments in a case that even supporters viewed as a long shot. How did this happen?
The media played a major role, fanning political passions by quoting every challenge – including the absurd claim that the bill called for “death panels.” As Rachel Maddow observed Monday night: this case was “built up as the Super Bowl of American partisan politics.” Thus, the Supreme Court was left with little choice: it had to hear “The Case of the Century.”