Few people expected today’s surprise 5-4 Supreme Court decision upholding President Obama’s health care overhaul law. Fewer still expected that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. would cast the deciding vote in upholding the law. It is a solid victory for the Blue team, and a boost for the president in this election year.
There are, however, complications. The major one is that the court rejected Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce as the basis for the health care law’s individual mandate to purchase insurance. This time, Roberts sided with the court’s conservatives in the 5-4 decision.
But the individual mandate was upheld, on the basis of the government’s ability to impose taxation. By viewing the mandate as a tax, Chief Justice Roberts was able to support it.
The commerce clause rejection was not good news. It had been used for a wide range of prior federal actions, including some civil rights laws, and the court’s decision will doubtless result in many new challenges to those actions.
For those who view U.S. history as a halting process of two steps forward, one step back, this is an historic day. Assuming the far right and the Tea Party can be held back at the polls this November, it means the U.S. will join all other wealthy Western nations in offering its citizens something reasonably close to universal health care. Could it be better? Sure. But this is a major, major accomplishment.