Suddenly, Justice Owen Roberts changed course to uphold New Deal measures. This prompted wags to quip: “A switch in time saves nine.”
Chief Justice John Roberts (no relation to Justice Roberts) was under no threat of a court-packing plan by President Obama. But he just as suddenly switched from his usual retrograde stance to join the court’s four liberals to declare Obamacare constitutional.
The reversal recently by the leader of the corporate-loving Supreme Court was as astonishing as it was welcome.
Roberts joined Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Why did a Republican politician like Roberts suddenly act like a justice instead of a CEO?
Good question. But an educated guess is that he felt it was time to act like a statesman if he wanted to restore some of the court’s reputation tarnished under his stewardship.
Adam Liptak, New York Times Supreme Court reporter, phrased it this way: Roberts sought to return “credibility, prestige, authority and legitimacy” to the court.
Even corporations need some good will.
The health care ruling was one of the rare times Roberts took the liberal side in more than one hundred 5-4 rulings.
Certainly 50 million uninsured Americans were grateful for the switch. And so were 2.5 million who can be kept on their parents’ insurance plans up to the age of 26, and 18 million children with pre-existing health conditions who cannot be denied insurance.
In addition, insurance companies do not have unchecked power to cancel policies, deny coverage or charge women more than men; and preventive care such as mammograms for women and wellness visits for seniors are fully covered by insurance companies.
Columnist Paul Krugman observed that Obamacare makes America a little kinder and a little more decent.
Roberts in his opinion said the requirement that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty falls under the power of Congress to tax for the “general welfare.”
But one downside of the Roberts ruling is that Medicaid coverage will be left to the pinch-penny mercies of retrograde states such as Texas. The opinion allows states to reject Medicaid.
Roberts wrongly called such a provision “economic dragooning.”
But as a matter of fact, as one critic noted, the law allows states “to dragoon” federal funds without providing coverage for which those funds are intended.
In a stinging dissent, Justice Kennedy said “the entire act before us is invalid in its entirety.”
Indeed, that was the view many expected Roberts to take after seeming to accept the “broccoli argument” during oral discussion that the government could force Americans to buy broccoli.
Nevertheless, widespread Democratic rejoicing over the decision is unwarranted.
The nation is still without universal health coverage, a program FDR was urging eight decades ago. Most Democratic presidents ever since at least feinted at national health. Even Republican President Nixon supported it.
Americans often revile “communist Cuba.” Yet those “dreaded” communists have universal health care, free college education, free day care and 12-week paid maternity leave.
That’s humane socialism as opposed to heartless capitalism.
Obama, as is his wont, refused to fight for truly progressive single-payer legislation, yielding to the insurance companies and Big Pharma.
Columnist Robert Scheer pointed out: “Obama limited his ambition to what Big Pharma and the insurance giants would accept as ‘reform’ in a system that they had so successfully exploited. Obamacare is a faux reform.”
Many poor people remain uninsured. Medical costs are steadily rising. The only solution is universal health care paid for by taxpayers.
The World Health Organization lists America as a pitiful 37th in the world in health care even though it is the richest nation. Moreover, America has the most costly health care in the world.
The great Justice Brandeis spoke of how “a single courageous state may serve as a laboratory” for the nation. That single courageous state is Vermont.
A year ago its legislature enacted universal health care, the first and only state to do so.
A federal national health plan is not a privilege. It is a basic human right, an ethical right that all nations should have.
Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.