(Bloomberg Business) — On Thursday, Chief Justice John Roberts drew fierce conservative fire for upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) (again). A hero to political liberals for 24 hours, Roberts seemingly flipped positions on Friday to write the lead dissent opposing the nationwide legalization of gay marriage. What’s with this guy?
Actually, his opinions in the marquee cases of the 2014-2015 Supreme Court term aren’t difficult to reconcile. Agree or disagree with Roberts on the merits, one can easily discern an essentially restrained jurist concerned with promoting the machinery of democracy and the reputation of the highest court in the land.
In King v. Burwell, the chief justice wrote for a six-member majority that slogged through the convoluted text of the 2010 act. His mission: figure out what Congress tried to accomplish by providing tax credits to encourage individuals to buy health insurance.
Roberts acknowledged that lawmakers did a sloppy drafting job. The law states that people can get the credits when they obtain coverage via an online exchange “established by the state.” Conservative foes of the Obama administration demanded a literal interpretation of those four words, which would have limited the benefit to residents of just the 16 states that established their own exchanges. Limiting the credits in that fashion would have wrecked insurance markets and denied coverage to millions of Americans. “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” Roberts concluded. “If at all possible, we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former and avoids the latter.”
He explained the philosophy undergirding this conclusion: “In a democracy, the power to make the law rests with those chosen by the people. Our role is more confined—’to say what the law is.’” That’s a quote from the foundational Supreme Court case about judicial power, Marbury v. Madison (1803). Saying what the law “is” turns out to be “easier in some cases than in others,” Roberts continued. “But in every case we must respect the role of the legislature, and take care not to undo what it has done. A fair reading of the legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan.”
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia offered an angry protest. “The court,” he wrote, “holds that when [PPACA] says ‘exchange established by the state’ it means ‘exchange established by the state or the federal government.’ That is of course quite absurd.” Scalia also suggested that Roberts had twisted legal logic to aid the White House agenda. “We should start calling this law ‘SCOTUScare,’” Scalia wrote. The Roberts majority, Scalia wrote, “favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.”