Commentary: The Health Care Decision

Jun 28, 2012

Last night I was thinking of a moment in American history not that long ago, when a newly elected conservative Republican President had to choose a new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The president was neither a scholar, a lawyer, nor an intellectual, and his choice filled the legal community with dismay. He picked a former governor and failed vice presidential candidate who had never served a day as a judge.

But Chief Justice Earl Warren turned out to be perhaps the most influential leader of the nation’s highest court in modern history -- and he led that court in directions the man who appointed him, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, never imagined.

It’s fair to say that few people expected today’s Supreme Court ruling, in which Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the four so-called liberal justices to rule that the centerpiece of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the requirement that people buy health insurance, is constitutional.

Ironically, he seems to have decided it is legal because it was the one thing Obama didn’t want to call it. The individual mandate is, he said, a tax. And Congress has the power to levy taxes, and so it passes muster.

When the ruling was announced, most of those who hoped for the law to be struck down were stunned. Those who supported the President’s bill seemed slightly amazed.

David Hecker, the President of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “Today will be cemented in history as the day the Supreme Court made a decision in favor of middle-class families.” The Michigan League for Human Services mainly works to help people poorer than middle-class.

Today, their policy director said, “We are ecstatic! This is great news for all Michiganders who are one accident, one tumor or one layoff away from health and financial disaster. Everyone wants the security of knowing they can see a doctor when they are ill.”

But you can be sure this isn’t the end of the story -- nationally or in Michigan.  Chief Justice Earl Warren’s first landmark case was Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the high court unanimously outlawed school desegregation.  But it took many years before that became reality.

Today’s verdict was five to four, with the justices in the minority fairly snarling bitter disagreement. You can expect a lot of foot-dragging in Lansing and in Washington when it comes to taking the necessary steps and making the appropriations that are needed, and more lawsuits to come.

Should Mitt Romney win the presidential election, and Republicans take both houses of Congress, odds are that they will make a major effort to severely change or repeal this act. But the nation’s highest court has upheld the closest thing we’ve ever had to full health care for all. There’s a very old man in Congress today whose father introduced a national health care bill when he was first elected, 79 years ago. When he died, his son was elected in his place.

Every year, he reintroduced his dad’s bill. Two years ago, the son, John Dingell, got to see a version of what his father wanted passed. Today, its Constitutionality was affirmed. If he doesn’t shed a few tears, I’d be deeply surprised.