Carney: Obama remark about Supreme Court was misunderstood

In an occasionally testy exchange with reporters, White House press secretary Jay Carney defended President Obama’s remark that it would be “unprecedented” for the Supreme Court to overturn the administration’s healthcare law, saying the comment had been misunderstood.

Speaking at a Rose Garden news conference on Monday, Obama weighed in on the matter for the first time since last week’s high court hearings that left many Democrats fearful that the five conservative judges would band together to strike down his signature domestic achievement.

“Ultimately, I’m 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,” the president said.

Republicans pounced on the remarks, citing more than 150 cases in which the Supreme Court had overturned an act of Congress.

On Tuesday, Obama said he meant the Supreme Court hadn’t overturned a law that involved the Commerce Clause, as the healthcare law does, in the last 80 years — since the New Deal.

Carney defended that take at a White House press briefing on Wednesday, when asked if the president regretted his initial remarks.

“Not at all,” Carney said. “As I’ve said a number of times now, the president was making the unremarkable observation about 80 years of Supreme Court history.”

When asked if that meant the president was now clarifying his remarks, Carney shot back, “Only because a handful of people didn’t understand what he was referring to.”

“The fact that it would be unprecedented in the modern era of the Supreme Court, since the New Deal era, for the Supreme Court to overturn legislation passed by Congress, designed to deal with a matter of economic importance like our healthcare system,” Carney continued.

“That’s what would be unprecedented about it. He did not suggest, did not mean and did not suggest that it would be unprecedented for the court to rule that a law was unconstitutional. That’s what the Supreme Court is there to do. But it has under the Commerce Clause deferred to Congress’s authority on matters of national economic importance.”

Critics blasted the president for his comments, saying his remarks were an attempt to influence the outcome of the court’s ruling and claiming that the president attempted to diminish the justices by referring to them as “unelected.”

Carney said that was not meant as a swipe against the Supreme Court, and that the president respects the power of the judicial branch.

“Nobody would ever contend in his office, and he certainly is not contending, that the Supreme Court doesn’t have as its right and responsibility the ability to overturn laws passed by Congress as unconstitutional,” Carney said. “He was referring to 85 years of Supreme Court precedent with matters like the one under consideration, and it’s maybe fun to pretend otherwise, but everyone here knows what he meant.”

“[The president] was a law professor,” Carney added. “He understands constitutional law and constitutional precedent and the role of the Supreme Court.”