Chief Justice Robert’s PPACA Opinion: Conservative and True To Form

Despite allegations of the opposite, the PPACA-related opinion of Chief Justice Roberts is a very conservative opinion, even though the effect of it is to join with the liberal justice who voted to uphold the individual mandate and the rest of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Chief Justice Roberts, by applying a strict constructionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and a strict adherence to previous court opinions found that the individual mandate was a tax, and that as a tax it was not beyond the powers of Congress.

The end result of Chief Justice Robert’s opinion was that he was the crucial vote in upholding a law that many of his strict constructionist supporters did not like, but despite their frustration he stayed true to his strict constructionist philosophy. In so doing, he established two precedent’s; limiting the power of Congress to use the Commerce Clause and the Reasonable and Necessary Clause that will help greatly limit future Congressional actions.

Chief Justice Roberts begins and ends his opinion in the very first and very last paragraph of his opinion with a civics course refresher.  He says that the purpose of the court is not to decide if a particular policy is a good one, or one he personally likes.  The purpose of the Court is to determine if Congress acted within its power when establishing that policy; the exact definition of strict constructionist interpretation. “The Framers created a Federal Government of limited powers, and assigned to this Court the duty of enforcing those limits. The Court does so today. But the Court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act.”  Chief Justice Roberts continues, “In this case we must again determine whether the Constitution grants Congress powers it now asserts,” and Chief Justice Roberts finds that Congress is legitimately asserting a power to tax.  

He than reminds us that the most important part of the process in determining whether a policy is a good one or not, is the vote cast by the citizens who elect the policy makers, “Under the Constitution, that judgment is re­served to the people,” and not appointed magistrates.

Chief Justice Roberts uses a tried and true court practice of deferring to previous rulings to determine that the enforcement provision of the individual mandate is an acceptable tax. In those previous opinions, Chief Justice Roberts states, that every time a statute can be seen as either constitutional or unconstitutional, the court properly deferred to the constitutional interpretation; a very conservative opinion.  He is not breaking with court precedent, but following it. Chief Justice Roberts quotes Justice Story from a 180 year old opinion “It is well established that if a statute has two possible meanings, one of which violates the Constitution, courts should adopt the meaning that does not do so.”  Justice Story continued “No court ought, unless the terms of an act rendered it una­voidable, to give a construction to it which should involve a violation, however unintentional, of the constitution.” Parsons v. Bedford, 3 Pet. 433, 448449 (1830).  Chief Justice Roberts then finds the same line of reasoning in the opinion Justice Holmes a century later, “[T]he rule is settled that as between two possible interpretations of a statute, by one of which it would be unconstitutional and by the other valid, our plain duty is to adopt that which will save the Act.” Blodgett v. Holden, 275U. S. 142, 148 (1927).

Earlier in his opinion Chief Justice Roberts set an important precedent by stating that Congress cannot use the Commerce Clause to force an individual into a particular line of commerce in which they do not want to be. He succinctly ends the portion of his opinion on the Commerce Clause by saying, “the individual mandate forces individuals into commerce precisely because they elected to refrain from commercial activity. Such a law cannot be sustained under a clause authorizing Congress to ‘regulate Commerce.’”  This is a very conservative thought; limiting Congress’ power to force a person into a commercial transaction, and a precedent that could have large implications for future legislative endeavors of Congress.

Chief Justice Roberts then writes that the Reasonable and Necessary Clause of the Constitution is limited as well; again another conservative precedent that preserves a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution.  He says, “Rather, such a conception of the Necessary and Proper Clause would work a substantial expansion of federal authority…. Instead Congress could reach beyond the natural limit of its authority and draw within its regulatory scope those who otherwise would be outside of it. Even if the individual mandate is ‘necessary’ to the Act’s insurance reforms, such an expansion of federal power is not a ‘proper’ means for making those reforms effective.”