WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – In a seeming victory for President Obama and Democrats, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act Thursday thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts.
Roberts, a conservative justice nominated by Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, provided the swing vote necessary to keep the ACA alive in the 5-4 ruling by helping to uphold the controversial individual mandate.
Roberts, a career Republican voted onto the Supreme Court following the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, has served largely as a moderate-to-conservative voice for the court.
But with the decision to stand with his more liberal counterparts and back the ACA – a decision that tipped the scales toward upholding it – he has potentially given his fellow conservatives a rallying point that will likely fuel the fires of Republican voters through to November 6.
The role of health care reform in national political debate cannot be denied. Yesterday’s decision in and of itself was polarizing for much of the United States. Social media commentaries and formally published opinion pieces alike showed the collective ambivalence felt by the nation over the court’s ruling.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney also pounced on the news, instantly taking to the airwaves to renounce the ACA while vowing to repeal the law if elected.
Jeffrey Hill, professor and acting department chair at Northeastern Illinois University, feels the ACA will play a major role in the upcoming presidential election.
“The ACA will be a major part … but what we need to watch is how each party will use it,” he told CBSDC. “The Democrats will emphasize affordability and access to care. The Republicans will emphasize government bureaucrats making health decisions for you. This is not new.”
Municipal attorney Chris Rider additionally pointed out to CBSDC that, regardless of the turnout yesterday, the conservative right would have used the news to galvanize like-minded voters against the ACA and, on a larger scale, the Obama administration.
“If [the ACA] was struck down, they could crow about this victory, and how with the support of the electorate, they could continue to roll back Obama’s socialist agenda,” he said, adding that Obama’s health care legislation was a “major rallying point” for Republicans even before the decision was handed down. “If it was upheld, they could press on about how it needed to be repealed, and use that issue to energize the base.”
Alan Abramowitz, an Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University, felt that the rift created by the decision would serve to both widen the national divide between liberals and conservatives and to bolster fervor on both sides of the proverbial aisle.
“I think the decision is going to increase the salience of the issue in the campaign, but it largely divides voters along party lines, so it may not move many voters,” he told CBSDC. “I think you’ll see greater enthusiasm perhaps on both sides. Republicans will be energized by their desire to defeat Obama and see the law repealed, but Democrats now will be energized by the fact that the survival of the law is going to be determined not by the court but by the results of the election.”
As for Roberts’ role, Rider feels that he has given Republicans the “best possible outcome.”
“First, this decision actually sets a rather broad limit on the federal government’s commerce clause power, preventing the government from requiring individuals to opt-in to a particular market. Second, this gave the Republicans significant political cover to call the ACA a tax. After all, that’s how it was upheld constitutionally,” Rider said. “Now the theme will be ‘tax and spend’ Democrats, something that they probably wouldn’t have been able to without this decision, given that the Democrats have largely avoided any tax hikes.”
He added that the talking point of a “surprise tax hike” could also play a role in conservative political debate as the year progresses.
Hill agreed, stating that “[t]he decision now makes the ACA part of the debate over taxes. This is not a particularly good thing for the Democrats [as i]t complicates their emphasis on taxing upper income people only.”
But as for the validity of Roberts’ decision, Perry Dane, professor of law at Rutgers University in Camden, perceived Roberts’ actions to be in line with the ideology of his role as an impartial agent of the law.
“Our country is plagued by hyper-partisanship. More to the point, we have too few public institutions that are, and whose members are, genuinely independent of political party loyalties,” Dane told CBSDC. “If any institution needs to be above the partisan fray … it is the courts. [And] Roberts, apart from his strict legal analysis, also understood his personal institutional role as a protector of the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, integrity, and reputation over the long term.”
Hill feels Roberts’ vote brought parity back to the institution. He told CBSDC that his dedication to the law superseded his potentially right-leaning personal politics, despite starting out his career on the Supreme Court with conservative-minded decisions.
“When he was nominated, Roberts was presented as someone who would bring the Court back to what it was supposed to be. Yes, he was conservative, but people argued he had a love and a respect for the Constitution that went beyond regular politics,” Hill said. “He was seen [at first] as a leader of the conservative block … but [then] split with the conservative block and did what supporters said he would do.”
Rider noted that the Supreme Court’s endeavor to remain impartial will, if anything, affect how they discuss the decision themselves.
“The Court really makes an effort to have the appearance of being apolitical, although they are, in practice, more ideologically aligned than they would otherwise like to admit, I think,” he said. “But the appearance of being apolitical means that they will exert significant pressure to keep their political identities out of any talking points associated with rulings that they’ve made.”
Regardless of how the Supreme Court presents their decision, however, Hill feels that some conservatives may feel “betrayed” by Roberts, and that he may have lost some conservative standing,
“The decision has already outraged conservatives who have made comments that they have been betrayed by Roberts,” he said, though he also pointed out a benefit for other, left-leaning Americans. “He is certainly not a liberal, but liberals may feel slightly more comfortable with the Court. And the decision will be seen as a constitutionally legitimate one.”