Roberts Healthcare Decision Highlights Impartiality of the Bench

The recent decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was shocking, unpredictable, and scandalous; but only to those who had hoped the Supreme Court would emerge as the third political branch of the U.S. government. In previous rulings, Roberts had sided with the Court’s conservative stronghold, including on contentious issues like campaign finance, abortion, and affirmative action. Yet in one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in recent memory, Roberts bucked the trend, shirked his own ideology, and showed precisely why the impartiality of the bench must be preserved.

Polls have shown that respect for the highest court in the land have been dipping lately, presumably due to the perception that the members of the bench had morphed into simple extensions of the presidents that nominated them. Roberts, in one week, single-handedly crushed that sentiment. With the Court’s decisions regarding Arizona’s immigration laws and Obama’s healthcare overhaul, the Court’s objectivity was restored. While the political tendencies of justices will never be completely eradicated, Roberts’ decision on healthcare illustrates the incredible importance of impartiality of the bench. For this Supreme Court, despite their deep divisions, decided by a majority that the law is the utmost importance, not political opinions.

Florida is entangled in much of the same drama that has surrounded the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, the Florida Supreme Court voted 5-2 to reject a constitutional amendment that would allow Florida to opt-out of federal health care reform because it failed to meet the state’s ballot requirements. The same conclusion had been made by Circuit Judge James Shelfer, who himself concluded that the amendment’s wording was “manifestly misleading,” and must be removed from the ballot. Despite this technical mistake perpetrated by the conservative creators of the amendment, Tea Party ideologues harped upon this decision as “activist” and said the justices were “legislating from the bench.” The focus quickly drifted from what was acceptable under the law, to what was politically convenient. Groups like “Restore Justice 2012” emerged, convincing voters to vote “no” on all three justices in the impending merit retention vote and aiming to give Tea Party governor Rick Scott the ability to nominate three new conservative justices. Although merit retention was intended to remove money and politics from the judiciary, its recent hijacking has threatened to do just the opposite.

After his groundbreaking decision, Roberts spoke briefly of the U.S. Supreme Court’s legacy, saying that he hoped they would be remembered “for protecting equal justice under the law.” The majority decision succinctly stated: “We do not consider whether the act embodied sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the Nation’s elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenge provisions.” This holding echoed, ironically, President Barack Obama’s rationale for opposing Roberts’ nomination to the Court. Whilst Obama thought Roberts would favor the strong over the weak, Roberts assured Congress that he would instead act as a judicial umpire, not intending to pitch or bat.

In the same token, Floridians must not get sucked into the vagaries frequently spewed by the Tea Party and its supporters. We must take the courageous lead from Chief Justice John Roberts and judge our justices on their application of the law, not their political ideologies. As I’m sure we can all agree, more than enough politics are played in the executive and legislative branches of our government. We must not let money, politics, and subjectivity enter our judicial branch. Vote “yes” for the law, “yes” for an impartial bench, and “yes” for Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince.