Jonathan Cohn notes an odd quirk about a recent American Bar Association poll showing that 85 percent of legal experts polled by the ABA believe that the Affordable Care Act will be upheld by the Supreme Court. The same experts are more likely to pick conservative Chief Justice John Roberts than slightly less conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy as the most likely conservative to uphold the law:
The experts ABA surveyed were unanimous in predicting that the four liberal justices (Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg) would vote to uphold and that Clarence Thomas would vote to strike it down. Fifty-three percent said Anthony Kennedy would join the liberals, but a higher proportion, 69 percent, thought Chief Justice John Roberts would join the majority. Majorities of about 60 percent predicted that the other two conservatives, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia, would determine the law is unconstitutional.
Although this view of Roberts and Kennedy is counterintuitive, it is not exactly surprising. In 2010, the Supreme Court handed down a case called United States v. Comstock which upheld a law that was very much at the margins of Congress’ lawful authority. In that opinion, Roberts took a somewhat more expansive view of federal power than Kennedy.
Because the Constitution gives Congress authority to “regulate commerce,” the United States has broad, sweeping authority over economic matters, but far more limited authority over non-economic regulation. Comstock upheld a federal law allowing for the indefinite detention of some sex offenders — a law which has virtually nothing to do with the nation’s economy. Nevertheless, Chief Justice Roberts joined the Court’s four more moderate members in a majority opinion upholding this non-economic law. Justice Kennedy wrote a separate concurrence which upheld the law as well, although on somewhat narrower ground.
Both the opinion Roberts joined and Kennedy’s concurrence support the conclusion that the ACA is constitutional. Moreover, unlike the law in Comstock, the ACA is very much at the core of Congress’ lawful authority because the Affordable Care Act regulates a market that comprises one-sixth of the national economy. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, in the only major federal power case that both Roberts and Kennedy sat on together, Roberts took the more expansive view of federal power.