Tuesday, July 03, 2012

I know what you were thinking

Here's the best part of the aftermath of last week's Supreme Court decision: commentators have become mind-readers.

As you know if you have been paying attention (and according to the polls, almost half of the population isn't), the Court ruled that the individual mandate for President Obama's health care package was indeed Constitutional. This has forced every commentator and most politicians in the country to talk about Chief Justice John Roberts' surprising vote to allow the legislation to survive when his almost-equally conservative side of the court voted to throw it in the trash can.

The commentary was pretty predictable, breaking down by the usual partisan lines that often spoil any sort of worthwhile debate in this country. The ever-bizarre Glenn Beck called Roberts a "coward," even selling t-shirts to that effect. No, Glenn, you're wrong as usual. The cowardly thing to do would have been to vote as he always did, with the right wing of the court, even if he didn't agree with the logic involved. Then there's Senator Paul of Kentucky, who said famously that just because the Supreme Court says an act is constitutional doesn't make it constitutional. Um, send that man a high school social studies book. That's exactly the Supreme Court's job. Come to think of it, the junior Senator could use a lot of high school text books based on his public remarks.

Commentators have guessed that Roberts was somehow worried about his legacy as Chief Justice. That he wanted the people through Congress to decide the issue rather than have the Court strike it down unilaterally. That he was hoping to prove that he didn't march in lockstep with Justice Scalia (see Clarence Thomas).

All's I could think about was something Justice Roberts said in Buffalo some time ago during a public appearance. When asked about a ruling, he essentially said, that's why we write opinions. The justics explain what their thinking is when voting that way. Why is this so difficult to understand?

The health care mandate was an odd way of approaching the subject. Instead of simply putting on a tax to cover the costs, the writers of the bill applied a penalty for not joining the health care plan. It places the costs on the back end instead of the front end, essentially. That's a unique approach, which is why it was part of the debate. The "taxing power" concept was not the primary argument for allowing the bill to stand, but it did come up.

Roberts ruled that while the mandate wasn't constitutional through the commerce clause of the Constitution, it was legal because of the taxing authority given to Congress. Period. And that's a defensible position as I read it. You can argue the opposite point, and that's what makes Supreme Court cases and horse racing wagering -- differences of opinion.

Naturally, the Republican leadership jumped all over the "tax" word by claiming the health care program was a new tax. Since taxes seem to be all the GOP leaders seem to care about at times, we could see that coming. The Democrats pointed out that just because the penalties come from the authority to tax doesn't make itself a tax. We're really splitting rhetorical hairs here.

The government tells us to do all sorts of things, from paying taxes to stopping at red lights. I don't see this as a huge strike against our liberties. We all had a form of health insurance before, since anyone who shows up at a hospital door with an emergency has had to be treated thanks to laws passed in every state in the land. However, it's an incredibly inefficient system on every level. We'll have to see if President Obama's plan fulfills its promises, but the goals of covering those with preexisting conditions and those without access to basic, preventative care seem worthwhile.

In the meantime, Justice Roberts wasn't asked to rule on any of that. He just did what he thought was right. I think that's the idea.

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