Court upholds health law but limits power of Congress

Today’s Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s health care law will help millions of Californians gain access to health insurance, and the decision could jump start Obama’s reelection campaign. But in an odd twist, even while upholding the law, Chief Justice John Roberts also gave a major legal victory to conservatives, ruling that Congress does not have the power under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to require people to buy insurance.

Roberts sided with the court’s four other conservatives, including usual swing-vote Anthony Kennedy, in concluding that the mandate to buy insurance violated the Commerce Clause. But then Roberts turned around and agreed with the court’s four liberals that the health law was constitutional under the power of Congress to levy taxes.

The mandate to buy insurance will be enforced as part of the tax code. Thus Americans will have a choice. Buy (or otherwise obtain) insurance, or pay the penalty, or tax. That’s not a mandate, Roberts ruled, but a choice, an option. And the tax people will have to pay, he reasoned, is not so large that the choice becomes meaningless.

So Roberts did the seemingly impossible. He was the only justice on the nine-member court who held the position that the law both violated the Commerce Clause but was still constitutional. And that was the position embodied in the ruling.

Most Americans will probably focus on the court’s upholding of the law. That part of the ruling will validate Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement and probably build support for the law and, ultimately, the president.

But conservatives were as concerned about the long-term implications of the mandate as they were about the health law itself. And they will hope that the 5-4 decision establishing limits on the power of Congress to regulate commerce, indeed to compel commerce, will have a more longlasting and far reaching impact than the health law itself.

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