John Roberts, former character actor as "the dad who wears khaki shorts and stands with his hands on his hips a lot," joined the liberal wing of the Supreme Court in upholding the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." In doing so, he gave a lot of people who don't pay attention reason to celebrate him on Twitter. They're idiots.
It's easy to like Roberts. Unlike other members of the conservative wing of the court, he doesn't look like his ideology is consuming his flesh from the inside out. The rest of the court ghouls embody the old Orwell quote that by age 50 every man has the face he deserves. Thomas—sullen, glowering, damned—digs his chin further into his neck with every session, his jowls subsiding like a California landslide in agonizing slow motion. Alito sits like a rubberized effacement of humanity, with his doll's-eyed cipher expression taking turns with a simpering smile only a cruel person would teach somebody. Then there's Scalia, America's prick uncle who farts at Easter dinner and doesn't even need to overhear all of your conversation before interrupting you to tell you you're wrong.
Compared to them, John Roberts and family are a Carnival Cruise ad. Ahahaha, dad just dougie'd. Mom did a cannonball into the pool. TENNIS?—ON A BOAT??? Everyone's tanning!
It's tempting to conflate appearance and character, to paint onto a welcome canvas things with which you agree and omit those things that seem ugly. So Roberts, who played the humble, inoffensive judicial nominee role to the hilt during his confirmation, has always offered a welcoming ambiguity to the uninitiated. Jeffrey Toobin might have been ready to consider him archly conservative in the New Yorker, but most of the rest of us were just guessing.
With today's ruling, you can already see lay-readers reevaluating Roberts as a decent-if-misguided guy who was willing to see reason. He upheld Obamacare! (Ignore the ruling on Montana's campaign finance laws earlier this week.) The consensus just two years ago, however, was that Obamacare was perfectly constitutional under the commerce clause. That there was even a debate was fundamentally absurd.
Instead, today Roberts upheld the law as a tax, claiming that, "The individual mandate... cannot be sustained under Congress's power to 'regulate Commerce.'" His opinion preserves the illusion of a court that impartially rules on the law and is not—in four cases at least—intensely motivated by partisan political considerations. At the same time, it represents the first major step in rolling back an interpretation of the commerce clause that has been considered fundamental for roughly 80 years, one whose elimination has been a Federalist Society wet dream for 30.
Lastly, in upholding the ACA as a tax, Roberts has also neatly handed the Republican Party a talking point to carry through to November. It took less than two hours for Marco Rubio to start babbling the same hoary litany, "This is the largest tax on the middle class in American history," and, "Every member of the middle class now has an IRS problem."
Democracts might want to rein in the celebration, and the right can put the fire ax back up next to the box marked BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF COMMUNISM. Roberts upheld one law today. He also opened the back door to gutting or eliminating countless other ones. But this is just calling balls and strikes. Humble stuff. If this were judicial activism, then it might actually be a big deal.
[Image via AP]