Justice Roberts Saves Court and Health Care

With his decision on Obamacare, the conservative judge helped salvage Supreme Court legitimacy.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

(The Root) — Without question, the Supreme Court’s health care ruling boosted President Obama’s legitimacy and his chances to hold onto the White House in the November elections. But perhaps even more importantly, the court’s 5-4 decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act may have salvaged the increasingly questionable legitimacy of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision to side with the court’s four centrists is perhaps best seen not only as an act of leadership, but also as an act of self-preservation.

The leadership of Roberts has increasingly come under fire over the past year. The Citizens United campaign finance decision — which upended decades of precedent and reversed course from decisions the court had made only a few years prior — dealt a sharp blow to the public’s confidence in the court. Roberts has quite rightly been singled out for particular derision, because the decision contradicted key elements of the assurances he provided to Congress and the public at his 2005 confirmation hearing.

Then he pledged to respect precedent, and recognized the particular corrosive history of 5-4 decisions in controversial cases. One year after pledging to serve as an “umpire,” Roberts preached from the bench that “the only way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating based on race”; in subsequent years he firmly ensconced himself in a rigid five-member conservative majority that ruled lockstep in cases that reversed decades of precedent on the standard required for plaintiffs bringing civil suits (Iqbal v. Ashcroft).

He also sided with right-leaning justices on the requirements for plaintiffs bringing class action suits (Wal-Mart v. Dukes) and of course on the question of whether limits may be imposed on the timing and manner of corporate giving to political campaigns.

The fact that these decisions have all been held by a bare majority of the court’s justices has opened up Roberts’ leadership for particular scrutiny. Part of the job of the chief justice is to protect the integrity of the court, and that sometimes means serving as chief arm-twister, stewarding the reputation and good name of the court during his tenure and recognizing who must take responsibility for thinking about the effect that particular decisions will have on the court and on the public. This may influence the chief’s decisions about when to release the decision in a controversial case (there was no question that the health care decision would fall on the last day of the term) and to whom to assign the responsibility of writing the decision in a particular case.