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How Chief Justice Roberts Reclaimed the Judicial Independence of the United States Supreme Court with the Obamacare Ruling

supreme court.jpgRegardless of whether you are happy with the outcome of the Affordable Care Act or not, you can celebrate one thing: United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, announced with his decision that he is not beholden to party politics.

In order to reach the decision upholding the Act, Roberts had to vote with the four left-leaning justices. Many believe or believed until Thursday that the Supreme Court was losing it’s independence. Justices are appointed for life. The main reason for this is to protect them from the ever-changing political climate. Life appointments are designed to give judges the freedom to make decisions that are fair, even if they are politically unpopular.

Historically the Court has encountered many such decisions. The most famously divisive decision was Brown v. Board of Education. In that decision, all nine judges voted to strike down the Separate but Equal standard, allowing state-sponsored segregation, that had existed since the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Many of the judges who ruled in Brown were appointed by segregation-sympathizers. Many politicians from Georgia and the other Southern States vilified the Supreme Courts members after the verdict. They were outraged that the Southern members had overturned this part of Southern culture. But, history shows, that by acting independently from their own party, they were able to affirm the independence of the judicial system.

Recently public faith in the ability of judges to make decisions based on an independent mind, verses a political opinion, began to wane after the Bush v. Gore decision. It was not because of the outcome, but because the Court was split so clearly along party lines. Since Bush v. Gore, this party-line voting trend seemed to persist at least in the minds of the American people. The Affordable Care Act was the next big case to test the independence of the Court.

Politically the healthcare law was polarizing. It garnered limited Republican support to pass. And since its passage, Republicans have tried to overturn and dismantle it. The Republican appointees knew that Republican Congress members were counting on them to overturn the law, declaring it unconstitutional. Had that happened, the public’s faith in the ability for the court to actually decide if something was constitutional (rather than merely unpopular or unfavorable) would have been nearly abolished.

But, Roberts, by crossing party-lines, keep the promise he made at his Congressional confirmation hearing. He said:

I have no platform.Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.I have no agenda, but I do have a commitment. If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind. I will fully and fairly analyze the legal arguments that are presented. I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

The Affordable Care Act was confirmation that Roberts really meant what he said.
And this matters for all people. The balance of powers is a fundamental American value. We need out courts to be impartial. People need to know that regardless of which judge they go before, their situation will be considered “based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor.”

In Georgia, our Supreme Court is not appointed for life. Instead every 6 years the justices have to run for office again. The primary downside to this system is highlighted in what Justice Roberts did. If he were facing re-election, it would have been very hard for him to choose to take such an unpopular position in his own party. Republicans who are feeling betrayed by Justice Roberts would likely want him out off the job. For a judge to have to run on his or her record is complicated because what might be right might also be highly unpopular. Having one’s own job intertwined with the outcome of cases can make it more challenging for judges to be impartial.

Many people believe this ruling has established Judge Roberts as a Chief judge with clear vision. As Dan Balz wrote recently in the Washington Post:

How much the court’s place and reputation entered into Roberts’s thinking may never be known. Someday, the full story of how he found his way to writing a majority opinion on the health-care case with the four liberal justices may become known. Legal and political scholars would love to know how it happened and have been speculating in the absence of hard information.

The opinion Roberts wrote was, in the estimation of some legal experts, either tortured or fiendishly clever in maneuvering toward an outcome that upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act while attempting to adhere to conservative principles aimed at restraining the powers of the federal government.