Now that the Supreme Court has decided to largely uphold Obamacare, and crucially the individual mandate, it'll be easy to get some temporary amnesia. We'll all forget that the Court is and always has been a highly political institution with motivations beyond interpreting our laws. Since Marbury v. Madison, it has cared first and foremost about its own survival, second about the health of the republic, and lastly about the fidelity of its legal interpretations.
Luckily, that prioritization has served us well, and upholding the Affordable Care Act is no exception. Given that 76 percent of Americans believe the Justices decide cases based on their political and personal views, the institution is yet again in trouble. With John Roberts joining the majority to uphold the ACA, he reaffirmed the Court as an impartial arbiter of pure legal questions. In the process, he cemented his reputation (at least for the next few years) as a fair and impartial justice. Neither are true.
The Supreme Court is a political institution, and there's no such thing as an impartial decision. Some of the most transformative rulings in our country's history are justified by some of the weakest legal arguments. Ask legal scholars which decisions seem weakest, and a good number will start with Brown v. Board of Education. It was a transformative moment that rightly affirmed our commitment to a fair and equal society, but probably isn't the pinnacle of legal reasoning for the Court.
Justices are masters of using complex legal justifications to neutralize the polar opposites of our political system. For Obamacare, the Court could have punted and said it doesn't have the power to rule until 2015, but few political institutions like to deny themselves power. But Roberts threw everyone a curve ball -- he affirmed the government's right to enforce the individual mandate in this particular case, but in a much broader opinion, limited the federal government's right to regulate interstate commerce and place restrictions on money to states.
So we got Obamacare, and we should be happy about that. But the Court's slight-of-hand affirms something far bigger -- that this was about politics, and always will be.