Dave Kitchell: Chief Justice Roberts to define his connotation
Thursday, December 08, 2011 3:55 AM
LOGANSPORT - When we hear references such as “The Reagan Administration” or “The Gingrich House,” the pure definition of government takes on specific meanings.
Like it or not, and sometimes through no fault of the people in charge, those references take on specific connotations.
With the upcoming consideration of the Affordable Care Act and its constitutionality, Indiana’s U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts is about to define the connotation of what could be a long tenure on the court.
What makes this one case a defining moment is that many on both sides of the aisle are calling on Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagen to recuse themselves from considering the case. In Thomas’ instance in particular, it makes sense. Thomas appeared at a prominent event where the Affordable Care Act was opposed, and the event’s sponsor has clearly defined its position against it.
Roberts’ worst gaffe so far as chief justice since he was appointed by former President George W. Bush is that he couldn’t remember President Obama’s name when he swore him into office. The mistake was so well known that Roberts and Obama restaged a private swearing-in ceremony so that anyone who ever questioned the legality of the presidency would have no doubts that Obama was indeed sworn into office.
The scales of justice at any level below the Supreme Court are supposedly balanced by a blind woman who weighs evidence fairly. But Supreme Court justices have the same responsibility that lower court judges do if there appears to be a conflict of interest: they step aside. There is one thing we can say about the justice system in this country: We may not always get justice right, but we always have another attorney to represent someone or another judge to hear a case.
In the case of the Affordable Care Act, there are clear political overtones. There are nine justices on the Supreme Court, and even without one from each party, an odd number of justices can clearly decide this issue without tainting the outcome because of perceived bias.
The Supreme Court sets the standards of judicial fairness for this country, and Roberts sets the standard for the highest judges. What action he can take, if any, to encourage Thomas and perhaps Kagen to sit this one out, has to be taken. If not, Thomas and Roberts both will be reviled if they strike down the Affordable Care Act.
More to the point, striking down the constitutionality of requiring Americans to have insurance may also have ramifications with other laws. Most motorists in this country are required to have auto insurance. If the Affordable Care Act is overturned, expect the constitutionality of auto insurance to be challenged, too.
Meanwhile, back at the Affordable Care Act, if the verdict is anything but unanimous and if it is 5-4 or 4-3 if Thomas and Kagen recuse themselves, Roberts’ name will be forever linked to an historic case that could well define the health care debate in this country for the next 100 years.
While we likely will never hear Roberts explain any conversations he has had with Thomas or Kagen about the case – unless memoirs are released after his death – we likely can say this case will define him as much as Bush v. Gore defined William Rehnquist or Roe v. Wade defined their predecessors.
Roberts, a Long Beach, Ind., native, joined the court with an impeccable reputation, but maintaining it under these circumstances could pose his most difficult challenge in what could be a multi-decade tenure on the nation’s highest court.
Kitchell is an award-winning columnist who is teaching journalism at Logansport HS.