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Nicholas Robins-Early: "Rightly being seen as the most monumental ruling the Supreme Court has given since Bush v Gore over a decade ago"

Image: Twitpic via @pgPoliTweets

This morning, the Supreme Court of the United States voted 5-4 to uphold the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.” The decision has wide ranging political and societal implications for America, and is rightly being seen as the most monumental ruling the Supreme Court has given since Bush v Gore over a decade ago.

Speculation over the Supreme Court’s ruling have run rampant in the lead up to the decision, especially after Don Verrilli – the defense lawyer in charge of defending the Act – botched the job so badly that Jeffrey Toobin famously called it a “train wreck.” However, today it seems that Toobin and other pundits may have been misinformed when they said the sky was falling.

The court ruled along partisan lines with the conservative justices such as Scalia and Kennedy arguing that the Act be ruled completely unconstitutional, hoping to strike down all aspects of Act, not only the individual mandate. The key swing vote was Chief Justice John Roberts, who is currently being heralded by the left as the savior of Obamacare, and rightly so. Roberts centrist swing vote was seen as crucial to victory for both sides, while the fact that he sided with the left is perhaps not entirely unsurprising, the totality of his position certainly is. Justice Roberts voted not only to uphold the Act but to also uphold the most controversial part of it – the individual mandate.

The reasoning for upholding the Act in it’s entirety (including the individual mandate) is ironically the same thing that liberals argued against when lobbying congress to pass the Act in the first place: the characterization that it is a tax. As the explanation by SCOTUS today states “The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may be reasonably characterized as a tax. Because the constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”

The distinction between whether the Act was a tax or not seemed to be a major issue when the debate first occurred, though after today’s victory you would be hard pressed to find many on the left who are too concerned about it. The result is an unequivocal success for Obama at a time when he certainly could use it. Romney on the other hand has been somewhat hoisted on his own petard, as his institution of “Romneycare” as governor of Massachusetts was the foundation upon which the Affordable Care Act was based. The frustration of that fact and blow to his campaign is great enough that it might cause Romney to crush his ginger ale can and punch a dog in the face, as I joked earlier.

As for the actual practical implications of the Act being upheld, Jonathan Cohn, one of the leading voices on healthcare reform, puts it thusly: “If fully implemented, thirty million people who might otherwise be uninsured will get coverage. Tens of millions more will get better insurance than they might have had, whether it’s seniors getting additional drug coverage or purchasers of private insurance getting the right to appeal insurer treatment decisions … a win–a huge win–for those who support health care reform.”

The opposition on the right will rally against this as a major overreach of the federal government, an expansion of power beyond what the constitution allows, and a threat to individual liberty. There have been a number of well thought out refutations of these points, but none matter as much as the one the Supreme Court delivered today. This hardly means that the debate on this subject is over however, as the tight 5-4 decision leaves ample room for dissent. Just as legal scholars and liberals bemoan the Bush v Gore decision of a decade ago, so will many on the right carry this ruling as a particularly sharp thorn in their side.

Regardless of partisan politics though, this day marks the first conclusive step towards the United States joining the ranks of Canada, Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, Brunei, pretty much all of Europe and almost every other developed nation, in implementing some form of universal healthcare. They may be surprised to see what they’ve been missing.


Nick Robins-Early is a freelance journalist currently based in Washington, D.C. Follow him @nickrobinsearly.

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