By Bernie Becker and Mike Lillis - 06/29/12 10:00 AM EDT
Congressional Democrats who had feared the worst from the Supreme Court were left grappling with a new reality Thursday after Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote to uphold President Obama’s landmark healthcare law.
Democrats for years have charged that the Roberts court has made decisions guided more by partisan politics than the Constitution, most notably by ruling in the Citizens United case that corporations could spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who was holding a sign that read, "Obama-Roberts 2012" as he left a Democratic Caucus meeting, said Roberts has "rebranded himself" with Thursday's healthcare ruling.
“We certainly agree with his, in this case, very principled position. In one fell swoop he's burnished his legacy,” Ackerman said. “This is almost a revocation of the Bush v. Gore decision, where [conservative justices] went completely the opposite way.
“He's somebody that we have to watch carefully and give him more credit,” Ackerman added. “He's certainly given himself more legitimacy.”
The decision upholding the healthcare law, and ruling that its central mandate was a tax, comes just days after the justices also threw out large portions of Arizona’s controversial immigration law — surprise back-to-back victories for Obama from a conservative-leaning court that many Democrats have accused of being hostile to the administration.
The ruling also comes after Obama had already called out the Supreme Court, during a State of the Union address, for its Citizens United decision. Democrats on Capitol Hill have railed against and tried to overturn that ruling.
And with many assuming that the court would strike down the healthcare law this week, some had thought Democrats might continue taking aim at the Roberts court on the campaign trail if the ruling went against them.
Instead, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said, upholding the healthcare law could lead to a more nuanced view of the justices.
“This is a welcome relief from what’s been a consistent pattern,” Welch said.
Still, the Vermont Democrat said that “the legacy of this court is fundamentally conservative.” And other Democrats, on both sides of the Capitol, said there were plenty of reasons to remain skeptical about its current makeup.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate health committee, said he was concerned by the tone of the healthcare dissent, with Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s usual swing vote, having termed the decision a vast judicial overreach.
And while saying the mandate could stand as a tax, Roberts, and a majority of the court, said it was not supported by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, the Democrats’ preferred method for upholding the law. Republicans also moved swiftly after the verdict to criticize the healthcare law as a massive tax increase.
“I think we have to be very careful about what those four justices may do in the future, if they get Roberts to swing with them,” Harkin said.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) also cautioned not to give Roberts too much credit.
“You take one issue at a time,” she said. “Of course, we're extremely pleased that they retained the mandate and that he joined in that effort with the other justices, and we give him credit for that. But if we talk about other issues, we have to talk about what he's doing with the other issues.”
For their part, some Republicans said they were disappointed in Roberts, after the chief justice provided the swing vote this time around.
But others in the GOP said the ruling showed that Roberts — who famously said in his confirmation hearings that his role was to be an impartial umpire — was who he said he was.
“I think if you asked most Republicans and gave them a little truth serum, they would be surprised that this chief justice was on the side that he was,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio).
But, LaTourette added, “when he was confirmed, he said he was going to look at stuff and be fair. I think this pretty much demonstrates that.”