Commentary: Don’t Celebrate Chief Justice Roberts Before Reading This

Yes, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act today. But here’s why that may not be a great thing.

Posted: 06/28/2012 06:28 PM EDT

After the verdict comes the real debate. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld much of President Obama’s controversial Affordable Care Act — health-care reform — in a 5 to 4 decision that was sure to upset many Americans regardless of what it was.

Conservatives had hoped the court would strike down the entire law, or at least the individual mandate requiring people to have health insurance. But neither of those things happened, and now the GOP is screaming mad.

While Republicans cool off, something the political pundits are asking is whether the court’s ruling represents a bit of an olive branch. Chief Justice John Roberts, a Bush appointee, is a notorious conservative. And yet, on the Affordable Care Act, he was the swing vote that gave the Obama administration the victory, upholding the individual mandate as a tax. But if you talk to most knowledgeable people about the matter, what Roberts did was a far cry from give it all to the Democrats. In fact, he gave a win to Democrats while also preparing a win for Republicans down the line.

Here’s an excerpt of Justice Robert’s decision:

Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority. Congress already possesses expansive power to regulate what people do. Upholding the Affordable Care Act under the Commerce Clause would give Congress the same license to regulate what people do not do. The Framers knew the difference between doing something and doing nothing. They gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it. Ignoring that distinction would undermine the principle that the Federal Government is a government of limited and enumerated powers. The individual mandate thus cannot be sustained under Congress’s power to “regulate Commerce.”

As you can see, though Roberts ultimately voted with the liberals on the Court, he also made sure to note that he was out to limit congressional authority by putting strict and defined barriers on the Commerce Clause, a clause in the Constitution that allows Congress to regulate commerce between nations and states. This from James B. Stewart in the New York Times:

While the health care legislation itself survived, the limitation of Congressional power under the commerce clause is likely to have far-reaching consequences, and the decision may prove a Pyrrhic victory for liberal supporters of Congress’s expansive power. Some Libertarians, while disappointed that the law was not struck down, were celebrating the stake the court drove into the heart of the commerce clause.  

“We finally won a three-decades-long battle over the commerce clause,” said John Eastman, a conservative and a professor at Chapman University.

In other words, it was a victory for Democrats today, but in no way is this a sign that Justice Roberts is hoping to make peace with liberals. If anything, this is just laying the groundwork for years of more fighting. Hooray?

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(Photo: Steve Petteway/U.S. Supreme Court/Landov)