By crafting a judicial opinion that honors the role of the political branches in our republican government, Chief Justice John Roberts continues to cement his reputation as a gifted jurist and an exceptional statesman.
It is clear that many limited government conservatives are frustrated by the immediate result of the Supreme Court's decision on Thursday to uphold most of the major provisions of the controversial Affordable Care Act.
And inasmuch as this newspaper has long argued against both the wisdom and constitutionality of the ACA, it may surprise our readers that we would now praise Roberts' decision, especially considering how truly easy it would have been for him to side with the other four conservative justices on the court and invalidate the entirety of the ACA.
But Roberts' opinion both surprised us and taught us. In this cynical age, when it is too easy to believe that courts are results-oriented policymakers rather than neutral arbiters, Roberts reminded us of the appropriately limited role of the Supreme Court when reviewing the work of the elected branches. In the midst of a national political vortex, Roberts exercised an increasingly rare judicial restraint that brings honor to the court and to the rule of law.
"We do not consider whether the act embodies sound policies," Roberts wrote. "That judgment is entrusted to the nation's elected leaders. … Resolving this controversy requires us to examine both the limits of the government's power and our own limited role in policing those boundaries."
The judicial skill exercised by Roberts through the entire process of considering these cases has shown uncommon care. For example, in consolidating the multiple cases under review, the court noted several specific gaps in the arguments brought by parties. Ordering specific supplemental briefing to fill those gaps was not required, but wise. Similarly, the decision to allow extended argument for this case made the process exceptionally thorough.
And although the Roberts opinion did not deliver the specific result some had hoped for, what the Roberts opinion bequeathed the nation in terms of process, logic and precedent is a stunning victory for constitutionally limited government.
Roberts found that the mandate to purchase health insurance fell outside the bounds of Congress's power to regulate commerce, establishing clearer limits to that enumerated power. By finding instead that the penalty associated with the individual mandate serves functionally as a constitutionally permissible tax, Roberts might have preserved the ACA, but he significantly damaged the rhetorical footing upon which the mandate stood.
Roberts' opinion also delineated important constitutional limits to what Congress can accomplish through use of its spending power, keeping in place the carrots offered to the states that opt into the expansion of Medicaid, but limiting the sticks that can be used against them if they choose not to opt in.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court placed the future of federal health care policy right back into the hands of our elected lawmakers, both federal and state. But it gave that future back with much clearer guidelines about exact limits of federal power.
Without directly defying the political branches, Roberts has deftly reinforced the understanding that our federal government has only limited, delegated powers; that states have sovereign powers that cannot be treated capriciously; and that within those important bounds, it is ultimately the ballot box that will arbitrate the wisdom of policy. That is a tremendous result for constitutionalism.