Yesterday, President Barack Obama made the surprising prediction that the Supreme Court would uphold the health care law and further labeled those who would vote against it as judicial activists. I am not sure what he is basing his prediction on, but the comment on judicial activism is both unfounded and unwise.
With most observers saying that five justices, including Justice Anthony Kennedy, appeared to be opposed to the law on federalism grounds, the prediction of victory lead some to allege “insider information.” Fingers were pointed at Justice Kagan who some (including myself) felt should have recused herself because she was Obama’s Solicitor General at the start of litigation to defend the act and received emails on that effort. However, there is no basis to make such an accusation against Kagan who I believe would not commit such an egregiously unethical act in telling Administration officials what the initial vote was in the conference last Friday. Obama may simply be engaging in hopeful thinking (it is after the Administration that ran on “Hope”) or his continuing belief that the cases favor the Administration. It also seemed to set up his next (and much more disturbing statement) on judicial activism.
Obama stated that:
“Ultimately, I am confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress . . . And I’d just remind conservative commentators that, for years, what we have heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism, or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example, and I’m pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take that step.”
Of course, all acts found to be unconstitutional were generally the product of democratic process. The point of an independent judiciary is to serve as a bulwark against abuses by the majority. Obama’s statement about judicial activism is equally wrong. There are good faith arguments on both sides of this question and one does not have to be a judicial activist to vote to strike down the law on federalism grounds. I support national health care but raised the same federalism concern before Congress passed the law. I do believe that the law violates federalism guarantees while I respect my friends with opposing views. It is simply unfair to characterize a vote against the law in advance as judicial activism — a term that is often used by people whenever a court rules against their view of the law. To put it simply, it was a cheap shot and beneath a president.
Moreover, it was unwise at this time. This comment is not going to appeal to any of the justices, particularly not Justice Kennedy. The Administration needs Kennedy’s vote and he previously voted to strike down two federal laws on the federalism grounds — the very judicial activism described by the President. Additionally, the Administration is trying to convince Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia to moderate aspects of any ruling. They are likely to view this comment as directed at them. Roberts was ticked by Obama’s statement during his State of the Union address where he criticized the Court. While I felt Roberts failed to condemn the actions of Justice Alito at that address and felt that Alito’s actions were far more problematic, Roberts felt the President was irresponsible. Now, he is condemning any vote against the law in advance as activism. Even if Roberts and Scalia (or Kennedy) were inclined to vote against the individual mandate, they may be on the fence on questions like severability.
The message can easily be taken by justices as a threat that, if you vote against my law, I will denounce you publicly as judicial activists. I realize that this is an election year, but I believe a president should transcend such petty attacks. In this case, it is not just petty but inimical to the Administration’s case.