When America woke up Thursday morning knowing that the Supreme Court would deliver its long-awaited ruling on President Obama's health care plan, it's fair to say it was a house divided -- between those who felt the law is Big-Government-run-amok and those who saw expanded health coverage as a hallmark of a great society.
It's also true that citizens were united on one thing: Everyone expected the worst from our government.
Why wouldn't they? From last summer's debt crisis to unending high unemployment to the never-closing travesty of Guantanamo Bay, America's so-called leaders seem to know only two speeds: Fear-gripped gridlock, or the slow grind of short-sighted, good-for-my-side-but-bad-for-America partisan politics.
And no one expected much from a Supreme Court once viewed as largely – if not always – above the Washington's muck but now held in equally low esteem, thanks largely to its realpolitik rulings in the 2000 presidential race and its unlimited-corporate-cash-in-campaigns Citizens United decision in 2010.
That's exactly what made yesterday's 5-4 ruling to uphold the health care plan – and the day's unlikely hero, Chief Justice John Roberts -- so stunning (ask the producers at CNN and Fox who initially got it wrong) but, more importantly, so refreshing.
Sure, the details of what the Supremes OK'd yesterday, especially the hoped-for expansion of health care benefits to as many as 30 million Americans who don't have it now, matter – they matter a lot. But what's truly notable about Roberts' action in siding with the court's liberal wing – the first time he'd done so in a 5-4 ruling since joining the court in 2005 – is his seeming broader message.
Which was that at least once -- for this one day, anyway, on this one life-or-death matter – America needed to figure out how it could still do something really big, and stop figuring out why it couldn't.
In his majority opinion, Roberts wrote: "We possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation's elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices."
With those last 16, simple yet surprising words, Roberts went a long way – though not all the way – toward wiping the political blemish that has existed on the High Court since it handed the presidency to George W. Bush a dozen years ago. Just 44 percent of Americans approve of the Supreme Court, a recent historical low, and it's hard not to imagine that its Chief Justice didn't have the plunging image of the court weighing on his mind.
"Roberts peered into the abyss of a world in which he and his colleagues are little more than Senators with lifetime appointments, and he recoiled," wrote the pundit Jonathan Chait in New York magazine. "The long-term war over the shape of the state goes on, but the crisis of legitimacy has been averted."
"He acted as a true judicial conservative," said Pace University political scientist Christopher Malone in an interview -- meaning not in the modern sense of pursuing a right-wing, talk-radio-driven agenda, but in the old fashioned sense of interpreting the law and not making policy.
In a strange way, Roberts almost seemed to be celebrating this month's 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, another dark time, when the High Court showed up to say no president is above the law -- when the system actually worked for one day, dammit.
Roberts is no liberal icon -- today's action can't undo his past worship of corporate personhood, and his ruling Thursday on the role of the Constitution's commerce clause set the stage for new legal warfare. It also meant that key future decisions on making sure that health care actually works will have to be made by our elected officials, hopefully acting in the public interest -- the way that John Roberts acted on June 28, 2012.
That rarest of days when America actually worked. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
(Photo by Stephen Crowley/New York Times)