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The 2012 Vote

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The Supremes Validate Obama's Healthcare Reform

June 28th 2012

US Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on June 28 upheld the insurance mandate in President Obama’s healthcare law, a stinging defeat for conservatives who had insisted the law is unconstitutional. The decision vindicates Obama and congressional Democrats, who maintained throughout the legal challenge that even this court, with its conservative majority, would have to break with decades of precedent to overturn the healthcare law.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the court in the 5-4 decision on the mandate, ruling that Congress has the authority to enforce the healthcare law’s individual mandate, which will require most U.S. taxpayers to buy insurance or pay a penalty.

Roberts said the mandate could survive as a tax. "Nothing in the Constitution guarantees that individuals may avoid taxation by inactivity," Roberts said from the bench. Roberts tacitly acknowledged the passionate opposition to the healthcare law, but he said policy decisions belong to the elected branches of government, not the court. "It is not our job to save the people from the consequences of their political decisions," he said.

The decision allows Roberts — whose legacy will depend in large part on this case — to avoid the severe repercussions that both sides of the case had feared. The court did not strike down the signature domestic achievement of a sitting president, nor did it give its approval to an expansion of Congress's powers to regulate commerce.

House Republicans, in reaction, announced they would vote on repealing the full law on July 11.

Roberts joined liberals on the court in upholding the mandate at the heart of the underlying law. Obama voted against Roberts's nomination in 2005 as an Illinois senator, but 22 Democrats backed the chief justice, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Not one Republican voted against Roberts, who was nominated by former President George W. Bush.

Many of the law's supporters thought before oral arguments that Roberts might vote to uphold the mandate, but on different grounds. After the arguments, conventional wisdom held that Roberts would vote to strike the mandate and Justice Anthony Kennedy would be the swing vote in the healthcare case, fulfilling his traditional role on the court. Kennedy, though, not only sided with the court's conservatives, he wrote the strongly worded dissenting opinion. "The majority rewrites the statute Congress wrote" by deciding the mandate is a tax, Kennedy said from the bench.

The dissenting justices said the mandate is unconstitutional and the entire law should have been struck down. The law is "invalid in its entirety," Kennedy said.

Obama had denied that the individual mandate was a tax during Congress's deliberations on healthcare reform, and it is unlikely Congress could have passed the bill if it were deemed a tax in 2010. Yet Roberts's ruling that it could stand as a tax will now allow the law to be fully implemented. The court did chip away at the healthcare law's Medicaid expansion without striking it down entirely. It said the federal government cannot withhold all Medicaid funding from states that choose not to take part in the expansion, but must give states a choice between participating in the expanded program or leaving it as is.

The Tea Party movement has claimed the mantle of the Constitution in rallying opposition to Obama’s policies, and must now contend with the conservative court’s endorsement of the president’s signature domestic achievement. Some political strategists have said a ruling in favor of the healthcare law could ultimately hurt Obama by energizing the Republican base ahead of the November elections. “I think that a lot of people would be really pissed off, put it that way,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said before the court’s oral arguments, when asked whether a decision upholding the mandate would energize the right.

Following oral arguments in March, the conventional wisdom was that the mandate — and perhaps the entire healthcare law — was very much in jeopardy after Kennedy joined the court’s more reliably conservative members in aggressively questioning Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr.

The lawsuit challenging the mandate was filed by 26 state attorneys general and the National Federation of Independent Business. Karen Harned, executive director of the business group, said she was "very disappointed" in the court's ruling.  
"There's going to be a public outcry from our members. I can assure you of that," Harned said, speaking from just outside the Supreme Court.

Sam Baker writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.


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