Peering into the abyss
By Martin Hackworth
I was in Washington, D.C. earlier this year and had some time check out the sights. I walked up and down the length of the Mall several times from the Capitol Building to the White House and Jefferson memorial. I visited Ford’s Theatre, the Smithsonian and K-street. My last night in D.C, on my way back to my hotel, I was blown away by a chance encounter with Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” exhibition at the Hirshorn, where various artists performing “I Only Have Eyes for You” are woven together in a video tapestry projected in a 360 degree panorama onto the façade of the museum. That was pretty cool.
One of the things about places of great power is that they have a gravitas about them that you can feel just walking in the shadows of the landscape. I remember visiting Gettysburg once and having an overwhelming sensation that something both momentous and terrible had happened there. Washington, D.C. extrudes a sense of power and of purpose. One may discern, with remarkably little effort, that important things happen inside of those big, impressive looking government buildings. Perhaps no place in all of the District of Columbia projects a sense of importance greater than the Supreme Court.
So it was not that much of a surprise to me when the Supreme Court recently upheld, in a 5–4 decision, most of the Affordable Care Act. It was not even that much of a surprise that the pivotal vote was cast for the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts. About the only thing that really surprises me is that Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy did not join the majority to make it a 7–2 vote. The reason for this is that I think something happens to reasonable people, regardless of prior inclinations, when they get appointed to the Supreme Court. It’s got to be a sobering experience to realize that you, as a justice on the nation’s highest court, have the last word on things that are really important to an awful lot of people. For anyone capable of reflection and (heaven forbid) introspection, that’s got to be a burden as heavy as shouldering the marble walls of the court building itself.
I think that John Roberts, who appears to me to be a very smart man, pondered the consequences of a striking down the Affordable Care Act on shaky Constitutional grounds, peered over the edge into the waiting abyss, and decided that he wanted nothing to do with what he saw. Good for him. I’m a little less jaded than I was a few weeks ago when it comes to public officials and displays of backbone. Given the abuse that Roberts is taking (that he had to know was coming), I find his actions very commendable. It would have been much easier for him to side with the rest of the conservatives and strike down the ACA, pushing the country closer to an irreparable partisan divide. Think what you want, but a duly elected Congress passed the ACA, and voiding it on constitutional grounds would be a partisan, rather than a legal landmark.
I don’t know if the ACA, in its present form, is a good thing or not. I have no idea how health care will change as the law is fully implemented in the coming years. I don’t know if anyone knows how the for profit health care industry will adapt and find loopholes in the law that will allow them to continue to offer the most expensive and least effective health care currently found on the face of the earth. And I don’t know if it will, ultimately, do most of us any good. I am a little troubled by the individual mandate being foisted on us under the auspices of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, but agree with the ruling that it is legal as a tax. As far as I’m concerned it is a tax – one I happen to agree with – so Mitt Romney and I do agree on at least one thing. The end of the world cannot be far off.
So Chief Justice Roberts, good for you. It’s wonderful to see someone stand up, do their own thinking and take the hits that they know are coming. It’s even better to see someone go tell their mates to take a hike when it’s the right thing to do. There are very few individuals in contemporary American political life who have these abilities: John McCain (in his prime), Evan Bayh, Jon Huntsman and just a few others. More’s the pity too. If we had a few more individuals like these around, people who understand the gravitas of their positions, and a few less entrenched party line ideologues, I’d feel a lot more confident when wandering in the shadows cast by institutions of great power.
Award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth, of Pocatello, is a senior lecturer in physics at Idaho State University and the publisher of motorcyclejazz.com.