The Fruitless Search for the Supreme Court's Rationale

Yesterday, Ben Smith quoted a conservative lawyer offering a way the Supreme Court's conservative majority may think about striking down the Affordable Care Act. Essentially, this lawyer said, they think that the last 70 years of the Court's interpretation of the Constitution's commerce clause, which underlies much of what the modern American government does, is a giant fraud perpetrated by liberals. Even though they know they can't toss out that last 70 years all at once, they have no problem finding some ridiculous justification for striking down the ACA, no matter whether they really believe it or not. "You have built a fantasy mansion on the Commerce Clause," the lawyer tells Smith. "You can hardly blame us if, in one wing of this mansion, down a dusty corridor, we build a fantasy room called 'inactivity,' lock the door, and don't let you in." None of us have any way of knowing if this is what the justices are actually thinking, persuasive as it sounds. But there's something going on among liberal commentators, both those who think the Court will strike down the ACA and those who think they might uphold it, to try to look through the oral arguments in the case and in recent decisions to determine, not necessarily the outcome of the decision, but the reasoning that might accompany it. This, I fear, is fruitless.

I'll get to why in a second, but here are a couple of good examples just from yesterday. At TPM, Sahil Kapur looks at Justice Roberts' concurrence in a recent case to suggest that he may be particularly sensitive to preserving the Court's integrity and reputation, which could lead him to be reluctant to take such a partisan action as overturning the signature legislation of a president from the other party. Jonathan Bernstein, in a post not far from the position I'm taking, says, "The core problem here is that those who want a pre-New Deal reading of the Commerce Clause and the rest of the Constitution want to impose something that, in practical terms, would be highly unpopular, affecting laws such as the minimum wage. There’s really no easy way to do what conservative judicial activists want to do. And that leaves them with options that are going to look, to most people, very arbitrary." But I really don't think they care.

If the Court's conservatives do strike down the ACA, the reasoning they'll use to do so is irrelevant. That's the whole point of having a Court like this one: it's all about the outcome. Let's recall the most revealing line in the Bush v. Gore decision: "Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities." In other words, don't even think about ever trying to use this case as precedent for anything, because we don't even believe what we're saying. And the Roberts Court is even more conservative and partisan than the Court that decided Bush v. Gore was. William Rehnquist was replaced by Roberts (not much difference there), and the centrist Sandra Day O'Connor was replaced by the hard-right Samuel Alito. They would be more than happy to hang their invalidation of the ACA on the novel "inactivity" justification, then never consider the rationale again. Imagine there was some future piece of conservative legislation passed by a Republican president and Congress that regulated "inactivity" in some similar way, and liberals sued to overturn it. Is there anyone of any ideology who actually believes the conservatives on this Court would say, "Well, we'll have to be consistent about this"? Of course they wouldn't. The outcome is the only thing that matters.

So it isn't that they'll build a room called "inactivity" down that dusty corridor and lock the door. It would be more accurate to say that they'll grab the nearest unlabeled closet and cram the ACA inside, leaving no room for anything else before they shove the door closed and break off the key in the lock. Then they'll never look at the closet again, unless it serves the purpose of striking down more progressive legislation.

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