Was the Obamacare Dissent Originally the Majority Opinion?

 

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.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.