It is impossible for a lawyer to read even the first few pages of the dissent without coming away with the impression that this is a majority opinion that at the last moment lost its fifth vote. Its structure and tone are those of a winning coalition, not that of the losing side in the most controversial Supreme Court case in many years. But when we get to Page 13, far more conclusive evidence appears: No less than 15 times in the space of the next few pages, the dissent refers to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concurring opinion as “Justice Ginsburg’s dissent.”
There is one likely explanation for this: The dissent was the majority opinion when those who voted to overturn the entire ACA signed off on sending their text to the printer. In other words, Chief Justice Roberts changed his vote at the very last possible moment.
I suspect that Roberts looked at his legacy far more than the merits of the case when coming to his conclusion. Recent studies have shown a steady erosion of trust in the Supreme Court, believing them to be more politicized and partisan than previous courts. But by framing his upholding of the ACA as constitutional via Congress' taxing authority, Roberts may have given President Obama a Pyrrhic victory at best.
The 5-4 language suggests that Roberts agreed with the liberals. But for the most part, he didn’t. If you read the opinions, he sided with the conservative bloc on every major legal question before the court. He voted with the conservatives to say the Commerce Clause did not justify the individual mandate. He voted with the conservatives to say the Necessary and Proper Clause did not justify the mandate. He voted with the conservatives to limit the federal government’s power to force states to carry out the planned expansion of Medicaid. ”He was on-board with the basic challenge,” said Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University and a former clerk to Justice Kennedy. “He was on the conservative side of the controversial issues.”
His break with the conservatives, and his only point of agreement with the liberals, was in finding that the mandate was a “tax” — a finding that, while extremely important for the future of the Affordable Care Act, is not a hugely consequential legal question.
“We won,” said Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett, who was perhaps the most influential legal opponent of the Affordable Care Act. “All the arguments that the law professors said were frivolous were affirmed by a majority of the court today. A majority of the court endorsed our constitutional argument about the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. Yet we end up with the opposite outcome. It’s just weird.”
One interpretation is that Roberts was playing umpire today: He was simply calling balls and strikes, as he promised to do in his Senate confirmation hearings. But as Barnett’s comments suggest, the legal reasoning in his decision went far beyond the role of umpire. He made it a point to affirm the once-radical arguments that animated the conservative challenge to the legislation. But then he upheld it on a technicality.
It’s as if an umpire tweaked the rules to favor his team in the future, but obscured the changes by calling a particular contest for the other side. ”John Roberts is playing at a different game than the rest of us,” wrote Red State’s Erick Erickson. “We’re on poker. He’s on chess.”
By voting with the liberals to uphold the Affordable Care Act, Roberts has put himself above partisan reproach. No one can accuse Roberts of ruling as a movement conservative. He’s made himself bulletproof against insinuations that he’s animated by party allegiances.
But by voting with the conservatives on every major legal question before the court, he nevertheless furthered the major conservative projects before the court — namely, imposing limits on federal power. And by securing his own reputation for impartiality, he made his own advocacy in those areas much more effective. If, in the future, Roberts leads the court in cases that more radically constrain the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce, today’s decision will help insulate him from criticism. And he did it while rendering a decision that Democrats are applauding.
Roberts framing it as he did as a constitutionally-levied tax gives Republicans and all their secret Super PACs the ability to scream to the heavens that this is the largest tax increase on the American people. We knew Citizens United would make the election ads ugly, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we'll end wishing our worst expectations would end up being that good.