Gaming the System
At the Supreme Court, could legal precedent be less important than popular opinion?
These words matter a lot to supporters of health care reform. But it's no longer clear how much they matter to Justice Scalia.
Simon Lazarus has a thoughtful post about all the ways in which the court's more conservative justices—not just Scalia but alsoKennedy and Chief Justice Roberts—"will have to twist their prior decisions and statements into pretzels in order to rule the individual mandate or other ACA provisions unconstitutional." Reading Raich against the Alderman dissent, I am not sure all the justices are terribly bothered at the prospect of performing such gymnastics. Supreme Court reporters like to believe that the justices are invariably hemmed in and pinned down by their prior decisions, and in a perfect world they might be. But if we learned anything at all from Bush v. Gore, it's that in landmark cases with huge symbolic stakes, justices on both sides of the aisle can get all kinds of creative.
If that is the case, then in the coming months we should pay less attention to the words of Raich and more to the political scientists and judicial behavior theorists who have a lot to say about how justices decide cases. What really changed between last March and this week is that in making predictions about what happens to health care reform, we have almost entirely stopped talking about the law or the Constitution and begun to think solely in terms of strategic judicial behavior.
Court watchers on both sides of the debate seem to agree that Vinson's opinion was rooted more in his convictions about the need to restrain federal overreaching than in the court's modern Commerce Clause precedents. The question now seems to be less about whether the justices can find a way to strike down the law if they so choose—they can—than whether they have the political stomach to do it.
I am not an expert on judicial stomachs. But it seems to me that once you start thinking strategically about how health care reform will fare at the Supreme Court, pretty soon you arrive at some serious questions about the continued legitimacy of the court, judicial responses to public sentiment, and other matters that have far more to do with social psychology than Wickard v. Filburn.
Everyone would like to believe that the kind of constitutional issues presented in these health care suits are clear and specific. But they are precisely the sort of wide-open normative inquiries that may tempt even great and fair jurists to have a little extra-textual fun. "American constitutional lawyers, whether practitioners, academics or judges, seem to feel relatively few genuine constraints in the kinds of arguments they are willing to make or endorse," professor Sanford Levinson has written. "It is, I am convinced, harder to recognize a frivolous argument in constitutional law than in any other area of legal analysis."
If the odds of success for the health care challenges have tilted in recent months, it's not because the suits themselves have somehow gained more merit. It's because the public mood and the tone of the political discourse have shifted dramatically—emboldening some federal judges willing to support a constitutional idea whose time, in their view, has finally come. Whether this sea change will affect the Supreme Court remains to be seen. At least on paper, the Supreme Court is immune to whatever the odds makers are saying about the law's chances. If recent weeks have shown us anything, however, it's that what's on paper doesn't matter as much as we think it does in the nation's courts.
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Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Justice Anthony Kennedy by David Paul Morris/Getty Images.