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Robert Reich: Why the Supreme Court Will Uphold the Constitutionality of Obamacare

June 28, 2012

Robert Reich predicts that the Supreme Court will come down six to three in favor of the Affordable Care Act.


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Image from Flickr via Envios

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

Predictions are always hazardous when it comes to the economy, the weather, and the Supreme Court. I won’t get near the first two right now, but I’ll hazard a guess on what the Court is likely to decide: It will uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) by a vote of six to three.

Three reasons for my confidence:

First, Chief Justice John Roberts is—or should be—concerned about the steadily-declining standing of the Court in the public’s mind, along with the growing perception that the justices decide according to partisan politics rather than according to legal principle. The 5-4 decision in Citizen’s United, for example, looked to all the world like a political rather than a legal outcome, with all five Republican appointees finding that restrictions on independent corporate expenditures violate the First Amendment, and all four Democratic appointees finding that such restrictions are reasonably necessary to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption. Or consider the Court’s notorious decision in Bush v. Gore.

Roberts can draw on a decision by a Republican-appointed and highly-respected conservative jurist, Judge Laurence Silberman, who found Obamacare to be constitutional…

The Supreme Court can’t afford to lose public trust. It has no ability to impose its will on the other two branches of government: As Alexander Hamilton once noted, the Court has neither the purse (it can’t threaten to withhold funding from the other branches) or the sword (it can’t threaten police or military action). It has only the public’s trust in the Court’s own integrity and the logic of its decisions — both of which the public is now doubting, according to polls. As Chief Justice, Roberts has a particular responsibility to regain the public’s trust. Another five-four decision overturning a piece of legislation as important as Obamacare would further erode that trust.

It doesn’t matter that a significant portion of the public may not like Obamacare. The issue here is the role and institutional integrity of the Supreme Court, not the popularity of a particular piece of legislation. Indeed, what better way to show the Court’s impartiality than to affirm the constitutionality of legislation that may be unpopular but is within the authority of the other two branches to enact?

Second, Roberts can draw on a decision by a Republican-appointed and highly-respected conservative jurist, Judge Laurence Silberman, who found Obamacare to be constitutional when the issue came to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The judge’s logic was lucid and impeccable—so much so that Roberts will try to lure Justice Anthony Kennedy with it, to join Roberts and the four liberal justices, so that rather than another five-four split (this time on the side of the Democrats), the vote will be six to three.

Third and finally, Roberts (and Kennedy) can find adequate Supreme Court precedent for the view that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution gives Congress and the President the power to regulate health care—given that heath-care coverage (or lack of coverage) in one state so obviously affects other states; that the market for health insurance is already national in many respects; and that other national laws governing insurance (Social Security and Medicare, for example) require virtually everyone to pay (in these cases, through mandatory contributions to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds).

Okay, so I’ve stuck my neck out. We’ll find out soon how far.

Author Image

Robert B. Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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