Last week, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts stunned much of America. Normally associated with the court’s Conservative bloc, he jumped ship and cast the deciding vote in the 5-4 case of Florida v. Department of Health. His support allow the court to uphold the constitutionality of the individual mandate portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Popularly known as ObabaCare, the bill requires all but the poorest Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a hefty penalty.
All of Roberts’ usual compatriots, along with the court’s typical swing voter, Justice Anthony Kennedy, vigorously dissented. Not only did they claim that the mandate is unconstitutional, they wished to scrap the entire bill. Had Roberts voted with them, as most observers expected him to, ObamaCare would have gone down in flames. But he didn’t. Instead, he infuriated Conservatives and made (temporary?) friends among Liberals by allowing the bill to stand. And in order to do so, he split the difference.
On the one hand, Roberts remained true to his philosophy of judicial restraint, stating in his decision: “every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” Furthermore, he steadfastly refused to join the Liberal wing in signing off on the bill’s constitutionality under the commerce clause; Congress, he maintained, most certainly cannot compel Americans to purchase health insurance. In these respects, at least, wore Conservative garb. However, Roberts did allow that in this case, the government's fine on individuals who buck the mandate, could be interpreted as a tax. That was a particularly liberal reading of the bill, pun intended, given that for political reasons the ACA’s architects had been careful to not to call the penalty a tax. But with that reading, Roberts found a way to join the four Liberal justices in upholding the ACA since Congress’ powers of taxation are well established. Thus did Roberts craft an opinion that eased his Conservative conscience while also allowing a Liberal piece of legislation to stand.
Or did he?