AT HIS CONFIRMATION hearing in 2005, John G. Roberts Jr. vowed to uphold the Supreme Court’s role as a neutral arbiter — “to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat,” as he put it. Many Democrats were skeptical of those promises — including then-senator Barack Obama, who voted against Roberts’s confirmation as chief justice, fearing he was another right-wing ideologue in the mold of Antonin Scalia. But in Roberts’s opinion on Thursday upholding President Obama’s health care legislation, the chief justice made good on his promise.
Instead of joining with Scalia and the other conservative justices, Roberts took an appropriately measured approach. While striking down one Medicaid provision, Roberts accepted the bulk of the law, and made clear that it wasn’t the court’s job to take sides in a polarized political dispute. An elected Congress passed the law, Roberts wrote in his majority opinion, and it was entitled to “the full measure of deference owed to federal statutes.”
Such an act of restraint marks a welcome change for the court, and an overdue retort to its more overzealous justices. Over the last few decades, the conservative majority on the court has veered further and further into the territory of right-wing judicial activism. With the Roberts Court’s previous decisions on campaign finance and affirmative action, that trend seemed only to accelerate in recent years. The court’s recent conduct raised hopes among Obama’s opponents that the conservatives would prevail in striking down the health care law, too. Yet Roberts seems to have grasped that doing so would have cemented the court’s image as a partisan actor and severely diminished it as an institution. As chief justice of the United States — a title bespeaking responsibility to the nation as well as the court — he had a duty not to let that happen.
Roberts did use the ruling as an opportunity to nudge the court rightward. He upheld the health law’s individual mandate under Congress’s power to levy taxes — and specifically rejected the idea that it was constitutional on the basis of the Commerce Clause, Congress’s general power to regulate the economy. In doing so, he could end up limiting the scope of the Commerce Clause, making some types of regulation more difficult. But that shouldn’t detract from the overall significance of the chief justice’s stance. After all, Roberts could have limited the Commerce Clause just as easily if he’d joined with the conservatives in overturning the whole law.
The court’s reputation as an impartial institution has suffered since Bush v. Gore, when it delivered the presidency to George W. Bush along starkly partisan lines. The decision on Thursday doesn’t entirely heal those wounds. But it shows that Roberts understands that his responsibility to the court and the country goes beyond the political dimensions of one case.