As U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts gets bashed for betraying his conservative ideology while upholding the Affordable Care Act, it is worth recalling what he actually did.
He allowed the people, through their elected representatives, to solve a social problem.
Justices, who are not elected and hold a lifetime tenure, should be slow to interfere with popular will as expressed through our representative democracy.
"We possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments," Roberts wrote. "Those decisions are entrusted to our nation's elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them."
Despite his recognition of the limited role of the judiciary in blocking the will of the people as expressed through their representatives, Roberts went to great pains to limit legislative authority in future cases. The chief justice placed novel limits on Congress' ability to pass laws that regulate commerce.
Whether those restrictions will survive the test of time is unclear. Certainly, though, they reflect a mistrust of democracy.
While the court has an important role in protecting the minority from the majority and enforcing specific prohibitions, it should tread more carefully when protecting the majority from itself.
Democracy includes built-in checks that prevent Congress from making lengthy excursions beyond the will of its constituents.
After describing various limits on Congress included in the Constitution and in the Supreme Court's past decisions, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained the ultimate limitation succinctly:
"Supplementing these legal restraints is a formidable check on congressional power: the democratic process."
Supreme Court justices are accountable to no one. Congress is accountable to the people.
When not bashing Roberts, opponents of the law — that would give 30 million people access to health care while reducing the deficit — are calling for repeal.
It is the people's ability to repeal the law — by changing the composition of Congress — that validates Roberts' caution. The people created health care reform, and they can kill it. There was no need for an appointed judge to intervene.
It was not Roberts' job to rule on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act.
"Under the Constitution," Roberts wrote, "that judgment is reserved to the people."
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