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Supreme Court is not immune to Washington partisan politics faced by U.S. Senate, House

Henry Downes

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As the nation watched and waited, years of research, debate and speculation came to a head last month when the Supreme Court finally issued a ruling on National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) v. Kathleen Sebeliu, in a momentous 193-page opinion. The decision sent the Twittersphere, the blogosphere and the Rush Limbaughosphere into a frenzy— it was one of those bizarre sociopolitical moments when seemingly every American, from Anderson Cooper to your grandfather, had something to say about what the Supreme Court just did. “Obamacare” had survived.

The Court’s opinion was similar to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act itself in that almost nobody really read the whole thing, including the national news media and political pundits: Both CNN and Fox News managed to report the exact opposite of the Court’s holding in the moments following the ruling.

After the dust had settled, what most found interesting was Chief Justice John Roberts’ rather “creative” (for lack of a better word) majority opinion, in which he interpreted the federal government’s power to tax as satisfactory constitutional foundation for Obamacare. Interestingly, President Obama himself had staunchly refused to acknowledge the healthcare bill as a “tax” from the start, and with the help of some impressive semantic gymnastics, he preferred to understand the law as a “penalty” which the uninsured would pay to the federal government. Whatever. Mitt Romney’s campaign, on the other hand, still has no idea what to call it.

What is most worrisome to me, however, is the five-four split by which the majority ruled in this case. In cases like this with such far-reaching constitutional implications, you always would rather see a vote which reflects some sort of broad Court consensus to ensure that the justices did in fact get it right (instead of a one-vote majority). And although it wasn’t the anticipated conservative/liberal divide thanks to the vote of Justice Roberts, eight out of the nine justices did in fact vote as presupposed.

It’s alarming to me that the votes of justices sitting on the highest court in the land can be essentially predicted with eighty-nine percent accuracy simply by looking at the party affiliation of the president who appointed them. While I have no naive illusions of these men and women as idealistic impartial interpreters of the law, it does make one wonder how people who are so well-trained, experienced and intelligent can study an apparently objective document (the Constitution) and apply the law in such consistently subjective ways. Just how much do personal predilections and beliefs come into the equation?

Had a 5-4 conservative/liberal voting split come to pass, the ire of pundits on both sides of the political spectrum would have inevitably been cast at Chief Justice Roberts for allegedly presiding over the most partisan Court in history. Still, I would like to hope that Roberts’ vote wasn’t motivated solely by a desire to avoid this potential media firestorm. In an ironic twist, however, it seems that Roberts’ vote has become public enemy number one in the wake of the healthcare ruling anyway.

A Rasmussen poll, which came on the heels of the decision, showed that my concerns regarding Roberts’ vote and a hyper-partisan Court are reflected in the general populace: Only 33 percent of respondents rated the Court’s performance as “good” or “excellent”, and 28 percent said the Court was doing a “bad” job. This new data represents a 14-point swing in perceptions since the week before, which can only be construed as a shockingly blatant reaction by the public to the Sebelius case.

Admittedly, I don’t know as much about the relevant constitutional issues involved in this case as the nine Supreme Court justices who have spent months researching in preparation for this matter. I am, however, concerned that there seems to be a tacit understanding among the justices that they must promote the political agenda of the president who appointed them. It is not the job of the Court to decide if acts of government are good or bad policy- their role is simply to rule on constitutionality.

While I feel that the Supreme Court has muddied the waters significantly with its Obamacare ruling, I remain hopeful that a disillusioned public will recognize the November election as a de facto referendum on the future of healthcare in this country. It is a chance for the American people to issue a powerful verdict of their own.

Henry Downes is a Crimson White columnist and a sophomore majoring in economics.

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Supreme Court is not immune to Washington partisan politics faced by U.S. Senate, House