Roberts' ruling took guts
The chief haruspex reads the entrails expediently.

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  • Upshot is that Congress can’t use the Commerce Clause to force you to eat broccoli, but it can tax you into doing so @JonahNRO

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  • Roberts has gift-wrapped for #MittRomney the attack that President #Obama has raised taxes massively @JonahNRO

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  • "That so few people seem to care augurs poorly for the rule of law and the auspices of our republic." @JonahNRO

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Why not just cut open a goat and be done with it?

In ancient Rome, a special kind of priest called a haruspex would “read” the entrails of sheep to divine the will of the gods, the health of the growing season, or whatever else was weighing on the minds of men. Because animal guts don’t, in fact, impart that much information about, say, next year’s wheat harvest, the haruspices could pretty much make it up as they went along. The same went for the auspices, priests who studied the flight of birds and derived signs or omens called auguria (from which we get “auguries”). Ultimately, the haruspices and auspices made their decisions based upon the whims, vicissitudes, and demands of politics in one form or another. If the rulers were happy with the result, they didn’t much care what the guts actually said.

Fast-forward to chief haruspex John Roberts.

In the majority opinion written by Roberts, the Supreme Court held that the mandate to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. But Roberts also found that it’s constitutional under Congress’s power to tax. It is on these grounds that Roberts upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare, siding with the four liberal justices of the bench.

The upshot is that Congress cannot use the Commerce Clause to force you to eat broccoli, but it can tax you into doing so. Huzzah for liberty!

To reach this decision, Roberts had to embrace a position denied by the White House, Congress, and vast swaths of the legal punditocracy: that the mandate is a tax for the purposes of constitutional consideration but not a tax according to the Anti-Injunction Act (which bars lawsuits against taxes until after they’re levied). Roberts’s effort, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in dissent, “carries verbal wizardry too far, deep into the forbidden land of the sophists.”

Let the record show that the sophists were valued defenders of entrail-reading.

Of course, there are substantive arguments in favor of Roberts’s reasoning. But as far as I can tell, no one is confident, never mind certain, that Roberts actually believes his own position. And among supporters of Obamacare, from the White House on down, no one cares whether he does.

President Obama — self-praised constitutional scholar — mocked those who called the fees and penalties under Obamacare a tax. Now he celebrates a decision that mocks him back. Democratic National Committee executive director (and former White House aide) Patrick Gaspard seemed to summarize the depth of concern on his side of the aisle when he responded to the ruling on Twitter: “it’s constitutional. B—-es.”

More sober-eyed liberal legal experts took similar positions. Roberts’s opinion was “statesmanlike,” they claimed, and, more bizarrely, “apolitical.” Some, such as constitutional scholar Jeffrey Rosen, speaking on National Public Radio, even celebrated Roberts’s brilliance at finding a way to save the reputation of the court by deploying what Thomas Jefferson called “twistifications.”

Indeed, before and after the ruling, much of the journalistic and legal establishment argued that a 5–4 ruling to overturn Obamacare would be “political” because the majority would be comprised entirely of Republican appointees. But a 5–4 ruling to uphold Obamacare would be apolitical because, well, it just would be.

In other words, if five conservative justices rule according to their well-known convictions, it’s illegitimate. But if Roberts twists himself like an illustration in the Kama Sutra to find a way to uphold the law, then that amounts to “leadership.”

Now, I don’t know what’s in Roberts’s heart, but no court watcher I’ve heard from puts much weight on the idea that Roberts did anything other than reason backward from the result he wanted in order to buy respect from the court’s critics at the expense of his own beliefs.

At least that’s one thing both fans and critics of this ruling can largely agree on.

Some of Roberts’s defenders claim he’s outmaneuvered everyone. By upholding Obamacare, he’s made future conservative decisions unassailable. He’s poisoned the well of the Commerce Clause for liberals. He’s removed the court from being an election-year issue. He’s gift-wrapped for Mitt Romney the attack that Obama has raised taxes massively, violating a host of promises and assurances. And, again, he’s saved the legitimacy of the court.

That’s all very interesting, but it leaves aside the real issue: None of those concerns are what was asked of the court. That so few people seem to care augurs poorly for the rule of law and the auspices of our republic.

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Jonah
Goldberg

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    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

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