Chief Justice Roberts Casts Big Vote
Marc H. Morial
“The highest court in the land has now spoken. We will continue to implement this law and we’ll work together to improve on it where we can.” President Barack Obama
The Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold the Affordable Care Act represents life-altering access to health care for millions of Americans, particularly African Americans who have been twice as likely to lack health insurance. Health Insurance can mean the difference between life and death, and even more often it can mean the difference between financial stability and ruin.
Health care costs are responsible for a majority of personal bankruptcies in the United States. The court’s decision affirmed that the National Urban League mission, shared by millions of Americans, to build a fairer health care system is not only appropriate and pro-family, but constitutionally valid.
While the Court made the right call, it was once again a narrow 5-4 decision, with the deciding vote surprisingly cast by Chief Justice John G. Roberts. It is no secret that in 2005 the National Urban League sided with then-Senator Barack Obama in opposing Roberts’ nomination as chief justice. Roberts came to the nomination process as a staunch conservative who had been an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, which he had often referred to as “quotas.” He had also spoken out against the “effects test’ in voting rights enforcement, saying that voting rights violations “should not be made too easy to prove.” Up until last week, there was no indication that Roberts would be the only conservative Supreme Court Justice to side with the four liberals on the court in supporting the most important legislative breakthrough on health care in a generation.
Roberts’ principled decision elevated the stature of the court by refusing to have it defined as a strictly partisan institution, with justices reliably casting votes along a rigid liberal/conservative divide. Contrast this statesmanlike leadership with the comments of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who at various times leading up to the decision had trivialized this important national debate. Scalia had said it was “unrealistic” to expect the justices to read the entire bill, joking that the Eighth Amendment protected them from “cruel and unusual punishment.” And he had objected to the individual mandate with a quip that “You can’t make people buy broccoli.” These comments were unworthy of the seriousness of the debate and unbecoming of a Supreme Court justice. But thanks to Justice Roberts, common sense and the rule of law prevailed.
The Court’s ruling means that 31 million more Americans have access to health insurance and senior citizens will pay less for life-saving medications. It means that investments in preventive health screenings and community prevention efforts like those operated by Urban League affiliates across the country will continue to move forward. But the fight is not over.
Justice Roberts concluded his majority opinion by saying, “The Framers created a Federal Government of limited powers and assigned to this court the duty of enforcing those limits.
The court does so today. But the court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act. Under the Constitution, that judgment is reserved to the people,”
The Roberts Court has affirmed the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. It is now up to the political process and the court of public opinion to resolve its final fate.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.