An Act of Great Cunning

What did John Roberts have in mind? Under Obamacare, the penalty exacted on those who do not secure health insurance for themselves was, as its proponents argued, a fine, not a tax. This is not a matter of mere semantics. We may tax what people own, and we regularly tax what they do – import goods, earn a living, sell stocks at a profit, and so forth. We do not tax our fellow citizens for what they do not do. To do so would be tyrannical. It would be to assert a power to penalize people through the tax code for minding their own business. Given the debate that took place when the bill was passed, no honest man could think the mandate a tax.

Most conservatives understand this, and they therefore suspect that John Roberts did not have the stomach to confront the President and his party. See, for example, Joel Pollak’s post Did Roberts Give in to Obama’s Bullying? Moreover, there is evidence that the opinion authored by Justice Scalia was originally a majority opinion. Roberts was forced to back off. His was an act of judicial cowardice.

Or was it merely a recognition of the weakness of the judicial branch? After all, the Chief Justice had his reasons. The Supreme Court confronted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and it very nearly lost its independence. A switch in time saved nine, as they say. Roberts is very much concerned with sustaining the legitimacy and influence of the Court, and Obama and the Democrats have made it clear that they would regard a decision overturning Obamacare as a declaration of war.

There is, I am confident, more to it than this. In his opinion, the Chief Justice affirmed the principle asserted by Justices Kennedy, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas. He made it clear that the commerce clause does not give Congress authority over economic activity that we do not engage in. He also made it clear that the necessary and proper clause cannot be applied to achieve this end. In short, he joined these four Justices in setting a clear limit to the commerce clause, and he paved the way for future challenges to extensions of the regulatory state.

At the same time, he dodged the political firestorm, and nearly all of the liberals who have commented on the matter – a slow-thinking lot, in my opinion – have applauded what they take to be cowardice on his part as “judiciousness.” Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit was among the first to recognize that Roberts might be playing an elaborate game. He compared the decision to Marbury v. Madison, where Chief Justice John Marshall surrendered in the case before the court while firmly and eloquently reasserting the Court’s right and responsibility to engage in judicial review; and Reynolds pointed to one crucial fact: Senate rules do not allow a filibuster when the bill under consideration has to do with imposing or repealing a tax. If the Republicans take the Senate and the Presidency, they can now repeal the individual mandate. They will not need sixty votes.

Here and there a few commentators have begun to recognize what Roberts did. In a piece entitled Obama Wins the Battle, Roberts Wins the War, Tom Scocca rightly marvels at Roberts’ genius. But perhaps the best discussion is to be found in Ezra Klein’s The Political Genius of John Roberts. “He made it a point to affirm the once-radical arguments that animated the conservative challenge to the legislation,” Klein writes. “But then he upheld it on a technicality.”

By voting with the liberals to uphold the Affordable Care Act, Roberts has put himself above partisan reproach. No one can accuse Roberts of ruling as a movement conservative. He’s made himself bulletproof against insinuations that he’s animated by party allegiances.

But by voting with the conservatives on every major legal question before the court, he nevertheless furthered the major conservative projects before the court — namely, imposing limits on federal power. And by securing his own reputation for impartiality, he made his own advocacy in those areas much more effective. If, in the future, Roberts leads the court in cases that more radically constrain the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce, today’s decision will help insulate him from criticism. And he did it while rendering a decision that Democrats are applauding.

“For those of us who oppose the Affordable Care Act as a policy matter, this is a bad day,” Barnett said. “For those of us in this fight to preserve the limits of constitutional government, this is not a bad day.”

You should read the whole thing. Klein, who founded Journolist, may be a partisan hack – only the delusional left regards the arguments advanced by Scalia as radical – but Klein is not a complete idiot.

There, let me add, is one other possibility. The version of Obamacare that became law originated in the Senate. The Constitution stipulates that all tax bills must originate in the House. Were I Randy Barnett, I would file another suit arguing that the mandate is unconstitutional because the Senate cannot originate tax bills.

So there are reasons for hope. That having been said, the Supreme Court and Chief Justice John Roberts caved, and if the Republicans do not take the Senate and the Presidency we are cooked. FDR casts a long shadow. The Supreme Court will not defend the Constitution against a determined Democratic Party. This coming election is arguably the most important such contest in one hundred years.

Update: Here is another piece you might want to read.