What the Healthcare Ruling and the Civil Rights Era Greats Have in Common


It's not every day that the Supreme Court hands down a ruling that could end up determining a court's legacy. It's also not everyday that I am invited to guest host NPR's Tell Me More with Michel Martin.

Click here to see a cute Tout video shot by senior producer Davar Ardalan after our live broadcast where I reflect on my days at NPR.

Within seconds, both sides had declared some kind of win--President Obama bet his presidency against passing legislation those closest to him advised against because the margin for failure was THAT big.  Republicans threw down the gauntlet, rallying around a battle cry that the extreme level of government encroachment would mobilize conservatives to vote. Scores of others have something to say, pro, against, and mixed.

Legal eagles with decades of Supreme Court history are doing a much better job than I can of analyzing the law and the politics of this decision.

The one thing that stand out is the people behind this decision--not President Obama who proved his steely pulso (he can enjoy a rich career post-presidency doing nails or surgery his pulse is THAT steady).  I'm not even that interested in Mitt Romney who as predictably as the President running a victory lap, vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act if elected in November.

The person who has sucked all the oxygen out of the room is Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.  I remember when President George W. Bush nominated him to succeed Chief Justice William Rehnquist who I also remember--although vaguely since I was a little girl--being appointed by President Reagan.  What's breathtaking about all of the justices is how brilliant they are, with a reverence for interpretation of legal frameworks, precedent, and protections of our citizens.  Of course, politics can not be ignored, case in point the recent Citizens United decision that has lifted the flood gates and contaminated our political process with even more money.

In this instance, Roberts sided with the liberal justices, writing: “It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”

He basically punted past the politicians to the American people: you elected these characters, now live with your choices.  If you don't like it, you have the power to go out and vote to replace them.  The Supreme Court is not in the business of fixing messes.

It's too early to tell whether the Chief Justice is a traidor to his party or responsible for setting off a Conservative Spring.  What I find fascinating is glimpsing the humanity in this moment, a crucial element that's lost when we talk about the law, as if it exists in some void detached from people and contexts.

The law, like any text--the Bible, Don Quijote, Fifty Shades of Grey--exists because of the interpretation by real people, because of negotiations between a group and an individual with this tension giving it life, from the 10 commandments to the present.

The crushing burden of history on the present and how it can alter the future is what stands out in the book, Representing the Race: the Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer.  Harvard Law professor Kenneth Mack looks at the great Civil Rights lawyers--some giants such as Thurgood Marshall, others obscure--and reveals the agendas, frailties, complications, and convictions of ordinary men and women who changed the course of our nation, for the better.

Click below to hear our round table discussion minutes after the Supreme Court handed down its decision upholding the Obama Administration's health care law with NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, Dr. Kavita Patel of the Brookings Institution, and the Cato Institute's Michael Cannon.

Click below to hear my conversation with Harvard Law professor Kenneth Mack who talks about rescuing this personal history--of the civil rights greats and his own--for his book Representing the Race: the Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer.

Will the health care ruling be an issue that rallies voters?