John Roberts is not a “traitor to his philosophy.” He is not a liberal. He is, above all else, a very strict originalist, and the Chief Justice of a Court that is acutely aware – and wary – of its role in politics. Understand that his opinion, though certainly not ideal for the Right, contains more good news for conservatives in its pages than it does on its face.
So let’s take a look at his surprising opinion – the controlling opinion, as it’s called, which sets precedent and “say[s] what the law is,” as Marshall said so long ago.
The Good News
First: let’s give credit where it’s due. Roberts made it abundantly clear that he’s not a fan of the actual policy. Moreover, he shifted responsibility for this policy back to the American people, and revealed his respect for the separation of powers:
“Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”
Unhappy with the ruling though you may be, the wisdom contained in that paragraph alone ought to cheer you. And I promise, there’s more!
Now then. What hath he wrought?
“Commerce Clause” is everywhere in the news today, and if you’ll recall, that was considered the basis for both upholding and striking down the mandate. Roberts threw out the government’s argument that it could regulate inactivity because of the “substantial effect” abstention from the market would have on the market as a whole. This, he said, was way too much power:
“Allowing Congress to justify federal regulation by pointing to the effect of inaction on commerce would bring countless decisions an individual could potentially make within the scope of federal regulation, and—under the Government’s theory—empower Congress to make those decisions for him. […] Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority.”