Was the Obamacare Dissent Originally the Majority Opinion?

| Thu Jun. 28, 2012 4:03 PM EDT

 

So this is weird. Above is an excerpt from the dissent in Thursday's Obamacare decision. Justice John Roberts joined with the liberals on the court to uphold the law. But did Roberts switch sides? The dissent (read it here, starting on page 127) repeatedly refers to the "dissent," not a majority opinion. Here's law professor David Bernstein, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, a conservative legal blog:

Back in May, there were rumors floating around relevant legal circles that a key vote was taking place, and that Roberts was feeling tremendous pressure from unidentified circles to vote to uphold the mandate. Did Roberts originally vote to invalidate the mandate on commerce clause grounds, and to invalidate the Medicaid expansion, and then decide later to accept the tax argument and essentially rewrite the Medicaid expansion... to preserve it?

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's opinion, which was joined in part by the other liberals on the court, dissented in part from Roberts' majority ruling. So that could explain the "dissent" language. But legal scholars still seem to think it's unusual to refer to Ginsburg's opinion as a "dissent," because Ginsburg was on the winning side. Here's Georgetown University law professor Lawrence Solum, writing about the passage highlighted in the image above:

Language like this is highly suggestive of a majority opinion. The reference to the dissent and "we" strongly suggests that the "we" was a majority of the Court. This suggests that Justice Roberts switched his vote. There are other conceiveable explanations, but in my opinion, this evidence is very strong indeed.

J. Brad Delong, a blogger and economics professor at the University of California—Berkeley, notes that Justice Clarence Thomas, who authored a separate, very short additional dissent (read it here, starting on page 192), refers to the conservatives' main dissent as a "joint opinion," rather than a joint dissent, as would be standard practice. It could just be a typo—but later in the same section, Thomas does use the phrase "joint dissent." So it's unclear what's really going on here.

Volokh's Bernstein thinks that Roberts' supposed switch is a sign he was "responding to the heat from President Obama and others."* The high court is famously leak-free, but this story is so interesting, and the stakes so high, that we may actually learn more about what really happened in the weeks and months to come.

*Correction: This post originally cited a post on ToBeRight.com as an example of right-wing conspiracy theorizing about the pressure that was supposedly put on Roberts to uphold Obamacare. Blogger Violet Socks (which she says is a pseudonym) makes a convincing case that ToBeRight is actually a satirical site. Please click through to her post for the original text and a full explanation of what I did wrong. Blurgh. I regret the error.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.