Supreme Court Seen Influenced by Politics in Health-Care Ruling

Supreme Court Seen Influenced by Politics in Health-Care
A man walks up the steps of the Supreme Court with the Capitol building in the background in Washington, D.C., U.S.. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Three-quarters of Americans say the U.S. Supreme Court will be influenced by politics when it rules on the constitutionality of a health-care law signed by President Barack Obama two years ago.

The sentiment crosses party lines and is especially held by independents, 80 percent of whom say the court will not base its ruling solely on legal merits, according to a Bloomberg National Poll. More Republicans than Democrats, by 74 percent to 67 percent, say politics will play a role in the court’s health-care decision.

The case is scheduled for arguments March 26-28, pitting the Obama administration against 26 states that say Congress overstepped its authority by requiring Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.

“The ones that were appointed by Obama are more or less going to vote the way he would want them to,” said Republican poll participant Jacqueline Richey, an 86-year-old in Fort Myers, Florida. “Don’t get me wrong -- I don’t think they’re crooked. I just think they were appointed because they think like him.”

The public’s perception of the court comes more than a decade after its 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling, which ended the Florida vote recount and let Republican George W. Bush assume the presidency. The court will be thrust into the political debate this year beyond the issue of health care. It also is scheduled to take up cases dealing with illegal immigration and race-based admission policies at universities.

Political Peril

“I always worry when the court steps into the political thicket,” said Barbara Perry, a Supreme Court scholar and professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “It does so at its peril.”

For the first time, the court’s ideological divide reflects the party of the president who appointed each of the justices. In the nine-month term that began in October 2010, the justices divided along party lines in a dozen cases.

Five justices on the court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, were appointed by Republican presidents. Four were chosen by Democrats, including two, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, by Obama.

The justices themselves have said they don’t make decisions for political reasons.

“It is a very serious threat to the independence and integrity of the courts to politicize them,” Roberts said at his 2005 Senate confirmation hearing.

Legal Grounds Only

Justice Stephen Breyer told Bloomberg News in a 2010 interview that politics doesn’t influence the court, even in cases with electoral implications. “It would be bad if it were there,” he said. “And I don’t see it.”

The health-care case has already created some political maneuvering around the court, with partisans on each side seeking the disqualification of a justice.

Opponents of the law have called for Kagan to recuse herself because she previously served as Obama’s top Supreme Court lawyer. Kagan, appointed to the court in 2010, has said she didn’t play a role in formulating the administration’s legal defense of the law.

Supporters of the law have said Justice Clarence Thomas should disqualify himself because his wife, Virginia, previously worked for groups fighting passage of the measure. Thomas, who was appointed in 1991 President George H.W. Bush, is perceived by outsiders as being a likely vote to strike down the health-care law.

No Recusals

Neither justice has indicated any intent to step aside in the case. Roberts came to their defense in December, saying he has “complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted.” He didn’t mention either justice by name.

Bloomberg asked the question: “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?”

Seventy-five percent of the 1,002 respondents said they expect politics will influence the court’s ruling, 17 percent said the decision would be based solely on legal merits and 8 percent said they weren’t sure.

‘Small Modifications’

The poll also sought opinions of the health-care law. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said it should be repealed, the same percentage as the first time Bloomberg asked the question in July 2010. Eleven percent said it should be left alone, the smallest percentage in the four polls during which the question has been asked. Just under half, 46 percent, said the law “may need small modifications, but we should see how it works.”

Health care ranked fourth on a list of issues that respondents named as the most important facing the country, behind unemployment, the federal deficit and gas prices.

The margin of error for the telephone poll conducted March 8-11 is 3.1 percentage points. It was done by Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co.

The Bloomberg poll shows that Tea Party supporters, who seek a smaller federal government role, are particularly wary of the Supreme Court’s approach to the health-care case, with 81 percent saying politics will play a role in the decision -- the highest percentage of any subgroup the poll examined.

Illegal Immigration

In addition to the health-care case, the justices will rule by June on Arizona’s illegal-immigration crackdown, which the Obama administration is challenging. Late this year, probably just before the November general election, the justices will consider whether universities must stop using race-based admissions, which are designed to help minorities gain access to higher education.

“There’s a cynicism, particularly among Republicans, about judges and justices being tools of social engineering by Democrats and liberals, and that’s linked to a strain of libertarian thinking, get government off our backs, get courts of our backs,” said Perry.

“What you’re seeing,” she said, “is something of a hangover from the anti-Warren court era,”

From 1953 and 1969, Earl Warren served as chief justice and the court expanded federal and judicial power, particularly in the area of civil rights. Perry could recall seeing “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards along highways near Louisville, Kentucky, where she grew up.

Republican presidents appointed Warren and every chief justice since. The Supreme Court has typically been held in higher esteem than Congress or the president, Perry said.

“I just think that justices live in this isolated world where they surround themselves with academics and the law,” said poll respondent Jeffrey North, a 36-year-old information technology employee in Grant, Michigan. He identified himself as an independent. “Maybe I’m naive but I hope that at that level of the judiciary, they’re interpreting the Constitution, not basing things on politics.”

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