Has the US Supreme Court become too political?by Dahlia Lithwick / July 18, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
In June, the Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s healthcare reforms in a ruling that surprised conservatives and liberals
In June, in the days before the United States Supreme Court was to issue its landmark ruling on the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform, the nation went insane with half-baked speculation. Everyone was certain that the sharply polarised court, under the stewardship of Chief Justice John Roberts, would deliver a sharply polarised verdict. There was much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth, as the prospect of a politically motivated decision from the court highlighted the evaporating line between law and ideology.
In theory, the job of the Supreme Court, whose nine lifetime-appointee justices are supposed to be impartial, is to ensure that the President and Congress act within the limits outlined in the US Constitution. On right and left Americans now worried publicly about the wisdom of turning over vital matters of public policy—including the sprawling healthcare legislation which was the fruit of the greatest battle of Obama’s first term—to an institution that has come to sound more and more like an enraged local school board.
There was ample reason to worry. The Affordable Care Act (now known to its supporters and detractors alike as “Obamacare”) had been challenged by 26 states as unconstitutional as soon as the President had signed it into law in March 2010. The initial legal objection had seemed improbable—that the law’s “individual mandate,” which requires most Americans to purchase health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty, exceeded Congress’s regulatory powers as defined by the Constitution. But as the law’s challengers picked up key victories in the lower federal and appeals courts, this David v Goliath lawsuit picked up steam. More than one federal judge saw this case as an important opportunity to roll back Congress’s virtually limitless power to regulate the national economy.