Survey: Will politics tip the scale in high court's healthcare ruling?

Jun 22, 2012

As potentially millions of people collectively held their breath, again, Monday morning waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the fate of Obama’s health care reform, one of the many questions lingering in the air is will the justices keep their politics out of the decision? (Update: The court did not issue its ruling Monday and will likely do so on Thursday.)

And, we must also wonder: Will Americans keep their politics out of their assessments of whatever the court decides, when it does? (Warning, this is a “Take our survey” story … see below.)

A Bloomberg poll in March found:

An overwhelming majority of Americans think that the Supreme Court justices’ political views will influence how they vote on the Obama health care reform cases.

Respondents were asked “The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide the constitutionality of the health care reform law signed by President Obama in 2010. Do you expect the Court will make this decision based solely on legal merits, or do you expect politics will influence how some justices vote? ”

The poll found 75 percent of Americans think politics will influence the justice’s votes, while 17 percent think they will vote solely on the legal merits, and 8 percent aren’t sure.

A New York Times and CBS poll this month also found that American opinion of the court was sliding toward the negative, with only 44 percent of us approving of the court:

The decline in the court’s standing may stem in part from Americans’ growing distrust in recent years of major institutions in general and the government in particular. But it also could reflect a sense that the court is more political, after the ideologically divided 5-to-4 decisions in Bush v. Gore, which determined the 2000 presidential election, and Citizens United, the 2010 decision allowing unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions.

Either way, though, many Americans do not seem to expect the court to decide the case solely along constitutional lines. Just one in eight Americans said the justices decided cases based only on legal analysis.

And, it appears that Congress too is worried the high court’s ruling may be viewed as too politically motivated when the Senate’s judiciary committee sent a letter asking the court to break form and televise the ruling.

“We believe permitting the nation to watch the proceedings would bolster public confidence in our judicial system and in the decisions of the court.” (The entire letter is embedded below … under the survey.)

Even the evident public concern over the court’s ruling has some pundants convinced the court will rule in some measure because of the public’s worry. One writer on Slate.com says:

… as it happens, the current court is almost fanatically worried about its legitimacy and declining public confidence in the institution. For over a decade now, the justices have been united in signaling that they are moderate, temperate, and minimalist in their duties.

That’s why the current fuss being made over the health care cases has offered the court a perfect cover story. They will hear six hours of argument next week. They will pretend it is a fair fight with equally compelling arguments on each side. They will even reach out and debate the merits of the Medicaid expansion, although not a single court saw fit to question it. And then the justices will vote 6-3 or 7-2 to uphold the mandate, with the chief justice joining the majority so he can write a careful opinion that cabins the authority of the Congress to do anything more than regulate the health-insurance market. No mandatory gym memberships or forced broccoli consumption. And then—having been hailed as the John Marshall of the 21st century—he will proceed to oversee two years during which the remainder of the Warren Court revolution will be sent through the wood chipper.

And a Forbes columnist adds:

The good news is that the Supreme Court may be feeling your cynicism and looking to go out of its way to avoid the appearance of political creep.

Roberts spent an inordinate amount of time in his annual report discussing the issue of judicial integrity—so much so that one cannot help but think that the unpopular Citizens United case is very much at the forefront of the Chief Justice’s mind. With so many Americans stunned by the decision that has put money firmly in charge of the American election process, and all too willing to believe that the Supreme Court’s decision was a victory for the wealthy over the interests of the average American voter, the Court may be watching its Ps & Qs as they move into the next highly charged and visible ruling that will decide the fate of Obamacare.

All of which has us wondering if the court stands a chance of not being seen as political, no matter what it decides.

So we turn to you:

Senate’s letter to Supreme Court:

Video: Dan Rather Reports, "Case of the Century," Excerpt, March 20, 2012