A Sign of Integrity from the Supreme Court?

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its decision upholding President Obama’s Health Care Law (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). The opinion was authored by none other than Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. Given that Justice Roberts is politically conservative, the opinion is a sign of hope. Most Americans have come to believe, perhaps rightfully so, that the justices “interpret” the law with their personal beliefs and agendas, rather than restrained objectivity. Last week’s opinion is a sign that the court, or at least one justice on the court, may be moving in a direction of integrity.


Before discussing the Supreme Court’s opinion, one should know what the opinion is about. Here are the facts about the Health Care Law:

  • Enacted by Congress in 2010
  • Individual Mandate – by 2014, most Americans will be required to obtain health insurance, either through an employer, government program, or by purchasing insurance from a private company (26 U.S.C. § 5000A)
  • As of 2014, Americans who do not comply with the individual mandate will have to make a “[s]hared responsibility payment” to the IRS with their taxes, and the payment will be collected “in the same manner as” tax penalties (§§ 5000A(c), (g)(1))
  • Medicaid Expansion – the Act will, as of 2014, expand coverage of Medicaid so that States must include more citizens, such as adults with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level (42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(10)(A)(i)(VIII))
  • In order to asist States with the expansion, the Act increases federal funding to States (§ 1396d(y)(1))
  • But, if a State fails to comply with the expansion, it not only forfeits the extra funding, but may forfeit all of its federal Medicaid funds (§ 1396c)
  • Employers – Employers with 200 or more employees, and that also offer employees a health insurance plan, must automatically enroll all new employees in a plan, and maintain insurance for employees already participating in a plan (29 U.S.C. § 218A)

There are of course many more provisions to the law, and these are just the basic provisions that generate most of the debate. Indeed, the actual bill passed by Congress is over 900 pages long. The Supreme Court’s opinion focused largely on the individual mandate issue. Specifically, the Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether the individual mandate could be reasonably interpreted as a tax, or whether it could only be reasonably interpreted as a penalty. Regardless of any particular reader’s personal beliefs or political opinions, it is important to focus on the word “reasonably” since that is the standard by which the law must be interpreted under prior Supreme Court jurisprudence – whether a person likes the Health Care Law or not is completely irrelevant to whether it is constitutional; rather, as recognized by Justice Roberts, the issue is whether the mandate could be seen by an objective, reasonable person (meaning someone detached from any political beliefs whatsoever) as a tax and not a penalty.

The Commerce Clause

Many people watching the news coverage of the opinion on the day it was issued may have noticed that the news channels flip-flopped. Like many people who feel the need to rant about a subject, the news media did not take the time to actually educate themselves about the topic of discussion before offering their sage advice. This was due to the fact that the first part of the opinion’s summary indicated that the Act could not be upheld under the “Commerce Clause” of the Constitution. U.S. Const., art. I, § 8, cl. 3.

In order for the Commerce Clause to apply, there must be commerce. Since the Commerce Clause regulates commerce, and since only things that exist (meaning actively exist) can be regulated at any point in time, decades of prior Supreme Court jurisprudence have interpreted the Constitution’s use of the word “commerce” as referring to an existing activity. Justice Roberts recognized that requiring a person to buy health insurance is not the regulation of activity, but instead is the creation of activity to be regulated. In other words, the Health Care Law does not regulate an existing activity; rather, it mandates people to become active. As a result, Justice Roberts held that the law cannot be upheld under the Commerce Clause.

The Congress’ Tax Power

Had the hasty know-it-alls in the news media bothered to read the opinion (or at least the opinion’s six-page introductory summary) before reporting that the law had been struck down, they would have discovered that, although the Act could not be upheld under the Commerce Clause, it could be (and indeed was) upheld under a different constitutional provision – the clause allowing the Congress to “lay and collect Taxes”. U.S. Const., art. I, § 8, cl. 1.

Before going further, it is worth noting that President Obama and his administration have always maintained that the individual mandate is not a tax. So, some people wonder how the Supreme Court can view the law as a tax. Very simply, the Supreme Court, and not the president, is in charge of interpreting laws. The presidency, along with the Congress, are political bodies.

As such, those government branches “spin” issues they believe are in the best interest of the country in order to persuade voters to adopt their positions. It is for this reason that democrats and republicans often get into public battles over word choice. For example, a democrat who believes our involvement in the middle east is not in the best interest of our country will refer to the involvement as imperialistic, while a republican who believes the involvement is in the best interest of our country will refer to it as a national security measure. The Supreme Court, however, has no such political agenda (or at least the justices should not have such agendas if they are to know their roles and do their jobs correctly). That is why the Supreme Court ignores (or should ignore) whatever word games a particular politician might play.

Justice Roberts put his political opinions aside, and observed the proper limits of his role. He recognized that long-standing Supreme Court jurisprudence required justices to use any “reasonable” interpretation available to save a law. The reason for this jurisprudence is pretty simple – we live in a democracy, and the Congress is elected by our votes but the Supreme Court is not; so, if a law passed by a majority of our elected officials can be reasonably interpreted in such a manner as to be constitutional, then it must be so interpreted. Otherwise, we would have a group of nine unelected officials running the country. This would be akin to a dictatorship, which most Americans are able to recognize as a bad thing.

Since the Health Care Law’s “[s]hared responsibility payment” is paid with a person’s taxes, and since the law specifically requires the payment to be assessed and collected “in the same manner as” a tax penalty, Justice Roberts correctly held that an objective, non-political person, could reasonably interpret the payment as a tax rather than a penalty. As a result, the Health Care Law is a proper exercise of the Congress’ power to lay and collect taxes under article I, section 8, clause 1 of our Constitution.


Justice Roberts, a conservative who probably opposes the Health Care Law on a personal level, showed considerable judicial restraint by putting his personal beliefs aside, and faithfully executing his role as a Supreme Court justice without bias and without an agenda. Justice Roberts showed our country that there may be some sign of hope for an intellectually honest Supreme Court.

Rather than disapproving of his decision on the grounds that he departed from his republican principles, conservatives should resoundingly applaud Justice Roberts for departing from his republican principles. Very simply, once a judge dons the judicial robe and sits on the bench, he no longer has any political principles, but instead is supposed to be an objective, honest advocte of justice. At least in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Health Care Law, Justice Roberts performed this role with the utmost integrity. In the process, Justice Roberts has offered us at least a glimmer of hope that our collective cynicism directed toward our government may be in error.

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