Tuesday, May 21, 2013
San Jose Mercury News
With the Arizona immigration law case decided, America now awaits the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act. The case has once again turned the spotlight on the court's role in the nation's public life.
As usual, critiques of the high court depend largely on the tried-and-true principle of whose ox is being gored.
At the moment, the criticisms come primarily from the left. Many liberal commentators have warned that if the health care law is struck down in a 5-4 ruling, it will compromise the court's credibility, marking it as partisan and divided. Conservatives, in response, have asked why the assumed votes of democratically appointed justices to uphold the law should not be seen as a show of partisanship.
Few doubt that Supreme Court justices inevitably bring their own views to the cases they hear. However they may strive to consider only the facts and the law, a person's standards of impartiality do not exist in a vacuum.
Some justices are fairly open about the ideological underpinnings of their decisions. Reading Justice Antonin Scalia's opinions, for example, it is fairly clear that he regards laws affirming the special place of Judeo-Christian faith in American society as not only constitutional but morally proper.
But rulings sympathetic to liberal social causes are no less influenced by subjective values. Can anyone really argue that Justice Anthony Kennedy was proceeding strictly from constitutional principle when he wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 landmark abortion-rights ruling, that "at the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life"?
For years, complaints about activist judges and "black-robed tyranny" came from conservatives. Indeed, they still do -- not long ago, then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suggested that judges who make "radical" rulings ought to be hauled before congressional panels to explain themselves.
But if the Supreme Court invalidates the health care law, the shoe will be on the other foot. Most conservatives will be convinced that the majority followed the Constitution; most liberals, that it followed political preference.
Recent polls show that at least 60 percent of Americans believe the Supreme Court will decide the health care case based on politics more than law. That's an unfortunate sign of our polarized times. Yet, short of appointing a panel of angels as our highest justices, there's no better way to decide contentious legal issues and to balance the power of elected politicians who may not always speak for the people.