It’s been a strikingly good week for the national government at the Supreme Court. The common thread running through the Court’s healthcare, immigration and free speech decisions is a vigorous defense of federal supremacy and the Constitution, in the face of attack from states eager to chisel away at national power.
The big decisions on immigration and healthcare were closely decided and contain plenty of nuance, but both are full-throated assertions of federal supremacy. The Court struck down Arizona’s attempt to make immigration law infractions a state crime, holding that policing our borders is solely a federal matter under the Constitution. On healthcare, the Court rejected states' claim that the individual mandate was an unconstitutional overreach by Congress. In a bit of a surprise, Chief Justice Roberts found that the federal government’s authority to require all Americans to buy insurance didn’t emanate from its power to regulate interstate commerce, but from its taxing powers. Either way, Justice Roberts, a business lawyer at heart who understands the need for efficient national markets, sided with the liberals on the Court to assert federal supremacy.
The Court earlier in the week also reaffirmed our First Amendment free speech rights against state encroachment. The Justices summarily struck down a Montana Supreme Court ruling that had allowed a state law restricting political speech to stay on the books, despite the fact that it flagrantly violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
In all three cases, the Court was standing up not only to states, but to public opinion as well. The individual mandate, the First Amendment rights of corporations and undocumented workers don’t poll well.
It’s also worth noting that these cases don’t fall into any tidy left-right or Republican-Democratic prism. Most political reporters want to treat the Supreme Court as a player in the current political moment. But it is not. The Court's politics, its ideological struggle, fall within the longer-term Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian struggle that my colleague Michael Lind has described as the one constant ideological divide in this country.
And this was a very good week for the Hamiltonians.
Photo credit: Joshua Roberts/ Reuters