The U.S. Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the law and the U.S. Constitution is limited, yet vital.
This summer, the United States Supreme Court issued a series of historic decisions, fulfilling its special role as the final judge of laws passed by Congress and interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Some view these decisions as a victory for President Obama and liberal causes, which is only part of the story. A more nuanced viewpoint shows the more moderate justices appointed by Republican presidents played the critical swing votes. Indeed, two of the majority decisions were authored by justices nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Republican presidents. In addition, the actual language of the decisions—which most non-lawyers do not read—shed some significant light on these momentous rulings.
Upholding the Affordable Care Act
Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote the majority opinion preserving the ability of low-income Americans in most states to receive subsidized health insurance. In so ruling, Justice Roberts stated, “In our democracy, the power to make the laws rests with those chosen by the people. Our role is more confined—‘to say what the law is…’ Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”
Hence, the 6-3 majority decision was based on the longstanding principle that the U.S. Supreme Court does not make laws, but Congress does. The role of the Court is to interpret the law in a manner consistent with congressional intent.
Same-Sex Marriage Decision
In a 5-4 majority ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, authored the same-sex marriage opinion. He found that personal dignity is central to the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which states that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” The decision went on to state: “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Justice Kennedy acknowledged that people who strongly believe that marriage should exist only between a man and a woman will continue to personally oppose same-sex marriage. “Finally, it must be emphasized that religions… may continue to advocate with the utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths… The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.”
In a 5-4 majority decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, the court upheld the right of citizens to bring state constitutional amendments to establish independent commissions to draw legislative maps. In so ruling, the decision stated that a citizen-led initiative “was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the (source) of governmental power.”
This decision is a huge boost to the Illinois Independent Map Amendment, which seeks to put a similar redistricting constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot. (Visit MapAmendment.org to learn more.)
My intention in writing this article is to show the vital, yet limited role the U.S. Supreme Court has in interpreting the law and the U.S. Constitution. Hopefully, the actual language in these historic decisions reveals the thoughtful and politically independent nature of the U.S. Supreme Court. iBi