The Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare

Like many Americans, I was genuinely surprised when it was announced yesterday that the Supreme Court of the United States had, by a vote of 5 to 4, upheld in full President Barack Obama’s expansive overhaul of health care coverage.  Conventional wisdom had predicted that the Court would likely find the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, un-Constitutional.  In particular, it was expected that the individual mandate, requiring that all Americans obtain health coverage or pay a penalty, would be struck down.

What was even more surprising was the identity of the deciding, “swing” vote.  Expectations had been that if Obamacare was upheld, it would be by a narrow 5 to 4 margin, which indeed was the case.  However, it was not Justice Anthony Kennedy who joined the Court’s liberal wing in the decision.  Rather, it was the conservative Chief Justice John Roberts.

Supporters of Obamacare in front of the Supreme Court

To say that Roberts’ decision was surprising would be an understatement.  This is the first time ever since he was appointed to the Supreme Court by George W. Bush in 2006 that Roberts has ever sided with the liberal half in a 5 to 4 decision.  There has been much speculation as to Roberts’ motives.  A possibility lies in the public perception of the Court by the general public over the past dozen years.

Beginning with Bush v. Gore in 2000, and continuing with such high profile, controversial cases as at the Citizens United decision that overturned the McCain-Feingold Act, the Court has made a number of decisions along what appeared to be very political lines.  The court has often been split right down the middle between four liberal and four conservative Justices, with the deciding vote often cast by the moderate Kennedy.  This has led to many to regard the Court as having become overly politicized, as well as ideologically polarized.  Confidence in the Court among many has markedly decreased.

It is quite possible that Chief Justice Roberts has looked upon the declining credibility of the Supreme Court, and that this was one of the major motivating factors in his decision to vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act.  In writing the majority opinion, Roberts solidly framed the Court’s decision solely on its Constitutionality, refusing to make any observations as to the sensibility of the Act, stating “it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom.”  By his actions, Roberts may have been attempting to demonstrate that the Court is still capable of dispassionate analysis of an issue, rendering decisions on purely legal grounds, rather than political considerations.

It occurred to me that Roberts may very well have taken this course to preserve the integrity of the Court while, at the same time, privately hoping that in the November elections Mitt Romney and the Republicans will gain control of the White House and Congress, and subsequently overturn Obamacare via legislative means.  In other words, perhaps Roberts is attempting to have his cake and eat it too.  I certainly don’t want to ascribe any perfidious motives to Roberts’ actions, but it is always difficult to determine what goes through the minds of politicians.  I doubt we will ever know the full reasoning behind Roberts’ decision unless some decades from now, retired from the Court, he chooses to write his memoirs.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

In any case, I really do not want to spend too much time focusing on John Roberts’ motivations.  I think it more important to offer up a few thoughts on Obamacare.

Right up front, I will admit that the Affordable Care Act is imperfect.  There is much about it that can be improved.  But, however flawed it is, Obamacare is better than nothing.  It promises to offer coverage to millions of Americans who are currently uninsured.  We live in one of the richest nations in the world, yet so many of our citizens have absolutely no health coverage, no safety net in the event of a medical emergency.  To me, that is unthinkable.

Many have argued that the individual mandate is an unfair burden, a massive government intrusion upon personal rights to force someone to either buy medical insurance or pay a fee, just to help total strangers.  Well, I have news for you: we already do that for other services.  They are known as the police and fire departments.  The majority of us in our lives will, hopefully, not be a victim of a crime or have our house catch on fire.  But we pay taxes to fund the police and firefighters so that when a crime or a fire does occur, there will be resources to respond to that crisis.  It is unthinkable to imagine that only those who can afford to pay for police or fire protection should receive it; that would be the worst kind of selfish Social Darwinism.  So then why should our fellow citizens be deprived of an equally important protection, namely health care coverage?  Are we really so petty & cruel that we would sit back and watch the poor and unemployed suffer & die from medical conditions that can be treated?

For me, access to health insurance has a very personal significance.  I was born with a severe medical condition, and had to have open heart surgery when I was one year old.  If my parents had not possessed health insurance that covered me, I would probably not have received that life-saving treatment.  In addition, in the last ten years I have twice developed cancer, and on both occasions I had to undergo surgery.  Each time this occurred when I was unemployed.  The first time I was fortunately covered under COBRA, which was continuing my insurance from my previous employment.  The second time, I was lucky enough that my parents were able to afford to pay for me to have insurance, albeit at a rather costly monthly premium rate.  If on either of those occasions I had not possessed insurance, well, I don’t know what would have happened.  And the thing is, I am only 36 years old.  I have no idea what other future health problems I might experience.  So I am extremely cognizant of just how crucial it is to possess health insurance.

Watching as Mitt Romney promises to completely eliminate Obamacare if elected President, I am disgusted.  First of all, Romney a hypocrite.  As governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law something very similar to the Affordable Care Act, complete with an individual mandate.  Sorry, but simply I do not buy his excuse that Massachusetts’ law was one that would only work on a state level, and only for that specific state.  It seems to me that the only reason he opposes the Affordable Care Act is because Obama signed it into law.  Second, Romney has not offered any alternatives to the Affordable Care Act.  On the contrary, he proposes to severely cut Medicaid.  Obviously Romney is quite happy to see things remain as they are, to have millions of Americans remain uninsured.  For that reason, and many others, I will not be voting for him.

I am very relieved that the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act.  But, at the same time, I am nervous about what will take place in the next several months.  I hope that Obamacare did not survive a Constitutional challenge only to be slain by legislative reversal.