My sister’s friend is an aspiring actress. Which means she’s unemployed. One day, while she was getting off the subway, she noticed she was really winded when she got up the stairs. Turns out she had lymphoma. Her family would have had to pay massive medical bills, but she was covered under her mother’s plan thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
I don’t write that to make a point about how great the law is. Instead I want to make a point about what the Supreme Court could have overturned. This isn’t like Citizens United, which only invalidated an obscure campaign finance law. The Affordable Care Act had a positive impact on a lot of people, and if the court had invalidated it then it would have been taking away benefits from these people.
That’s the reality that John Roberts faced. If he did vote to invalidate the ACA then there would be hundreds of stories like my sister’s friend’s , showing just how many people the Supreme Court effectively denied coverage to. If he had voted with the rest of the conservatives, the Court would have suffered irreparable damage to its reputation not just among the left but among people opposed to the idea of a court taking away someone’s health care.
I think John Roberts would have voted with the conservatives if he didn’t face this dilemma. But instead he maximized the court’s efficacy in the future by refusing to deny tangible benefits to the American people. That’s what NFIB v. Sebelius ultimately came down to. Roberts’ decision is swimming with contempt for the law, but he upholds it anyway because it’s in his interest and the court’s interest to do so.
This decision highlights that John Roberts might be Barack Obama’s cagiest opponent. But only as long as he has 4 votes to back him up. So it also highlights just how important it is to return President Obama to office, so he may get a chance to make sure Roberts is outvoted in the future.