Obamacare ruling: The liberal apotheosis of John Roberts

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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After Thursday’s Obamacare ruling, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts became a minor deity to some liberals for voting to save Obamacare. But just days before Roberts’ apotheosis, liberals lamented that the “conservative” Supreme Court was taking America down a dangerous path.

Verbally hyperventilating in The Atlantic, James Fallows wrote that the Supreme Court was aiding in a “long-term coup” by conservatives.

“Liberal democracies like ours depend on rules but also on normson the assumption that you’ll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends,” Fallows wrote in the lead up to the Obamacare ruling.

“The norms imply some loyalty to the system as a whole that outweighs your immediate partisan interest. Not red states, nor blue states, but the United States of America. It was out of loyalty to the system that Al Gore stepped aside after Bush v. Gore. Norms have given the Supreme Court its unquestioned legitimacy. The Roberts majority is barreling ahead without regard for the norms, and it is taking the court’s legitimacy with it.”

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said that if the Supreme Court didn’t rule to her liking, it meant it must be “conservatively politicized.”

“So this may as much be a referendum on the Supreme Court and whether or not the Roberts’ court is so conservatively politicized that it will make a decision to hurt the president rather than sticking  closely to precedent in this case,” she said on NBC’s “Today Show.”

Liberal constitutional scholar Akhil Reid Amar told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein that if the high court didn’t agree with him on the health care law, his life’s work would have to be considered “a fraud.”

“If they decide this by 5-4, then yes, it’s disheartening to me, because my life was a fraud,” he said. “Here I was, in my silly little office, thinking law mattered, and it really didn’t. What mattered was politics, money, party and party loyalty.”

But after Roberts voted to uphold Obamacare, the looming coup the left was warning about disappeared and its leader, John Roberts, suddenly became a great man of history to some.

“This could be a huge day in the evolution of Chief Justice Roberts as a great chief justice,” liberal legal scholar Laurence Tribe told The New York Times in the aftermath of the Obamacare ruling. Tribe, in fairness, had correctly predicted that his former law student would vote to uphold the law.

Roberts had saved the court’s “legitimacy,” declared New York magazine’s Jon Chait, even if he disagreed with Roberts’ stance on the Commerce Clause and worried what it may portend.

“Roberts peered into the abyss of a world in which he and his colleagues are little more than senators with lifetime appointments, and he recoiled,” Chait wrote melodramatically in a post sincerely entitled, “John Roberts Saves Us All.”

“The long-term war over the shape of the state goes on, but the crisis of legitimacy has been averted. I have rarely felt so relieved.”

Even Fallows, who days before warned of a creeping “long-term coup” by conservatives led by the Roberts court, weighed in to praise Roberts after the chief justice spared Obamacare.

“The main point is: the observable facts about the chief justice’s vision and beliefs are very significantly different today from what they were before 10 a.m. EDT,” Fallows said. “The change is all to the good, for the court and the country.”

This is not to say that all liberals were effusive in their praise of Roberts.

“Yes, Roberts voted to uphold the individual mandate, joining the court’s liberal wing to give President Obama a 5-4 victory on his signature piece of legislation,” Tom Scocca wrote at Slate in a post entitled, “Obama Wins the Battle, Roberts Wins the War.”

“But the health care law was, ultimately, a pretext. This was a test case for the long-standing — but previously fringe –campaign to rewrite Congress’ regulatory powers under the Commerce Clause … Roberts was smarter than that. By ruling that the individual mandate was permissible as a tax, he joined the Democratic appointees to uphold the law — while joining the Republican wing to gut the Commerce Clause (and push back against the necessary-and-proper clause as well).”

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein echoed Scocca, calling Roberts a “political genius.”

“His break with the conservatives, and his only point of agreement with the liberals, was in finding that the mandate was a ‘tax’ — a finding that, while extremely important for the future of the Affordable Care Act, is not a hugely consequential legal question,” Klein wrote.

“It’s as if an umpire tweaked the rules to favor his team in the future, but obscured the changes by calling a particular contest for the other side.”

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