The country is buzzing over the Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or PPACA. (Obamacare actually sounds better). Proponents celebrated the decision as a watershed event for our nation and the 30 million Americans who will now have health insurance under the law. The legislation’s detractors jeered the ruling and vowed to redouble efforts to get rid of the law. Political pundits continue to debate vigorously the political consequences of the high court’s ruling for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney come November.
The politics of universal health care notwithstanding, Thursday’s decision has great significance for American democracy.
Consider the ironies. The Roberts Court has been characterized as the most partisan in modern history. Over the last several years on some of the more politically divisive issues in the nation, the Supreme Court, through its 5-4 conservative majority, has scaled back or rejected outright many of the progressive policies so reminiscent of the health care law it just upheld.
Many suspected the Supreme Court’s decision on the health care reform law to come down the same way. It didn’t because in deciding this case, Chief Justice John Roberts, who then-Sen. Barack Obama voted not to confirm, took seriously his role to preserve and protect the court and the Constitution.
“Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments,” Roberts wrote. “Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them.”
This lucidly-stated pronouncement of judicial restraint embodies the wisdom out of which Roberts’ opinion upholding the president’s healthcare reform law was made.
Unlike the other 5-4 decisions, the court’s health care ruling had the potential to permanently undermine the legitimacy of the institution of the Supreme Court and forever shift the balance of federal power in a way that may not have been contemplated by the Constitution. Roberts, through a statesman-like exercise of his own judicial (and political) power, chose to put the Constitution and our system of democracy before even his own personal ideology.
The debate will no doubt continue about what Thursday’s decision means for our political leaders and our nation’s attainment of universal health care. Still, the Supreme Court’s ruling is nonetheless a testament of one of America’s great institutions rising up to say that democracy matters more than dogma.
For Americans, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act represents a win for democracy and the rule of law, and we are a stronger nation for it.