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Hoo-boy: Did you see that SCOTUS decision coming last week? If you didn’t, you weren’t alone. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the national healthcare law came as a surprise to many, as did the way it happened, with Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts casting the deciding vote. And the decision is changing a lot of American minds—not just about health care policy, but about the court itself.
According to a CNN/ORC International survey released Monday, the public is divided on last week's ruling, with 50 percent saying they agree with the Supreme Court's decision and 49 percent saying they don’t. Expectedly, those opinions fall along party lines. But the court's own approval rating among Democrats jumped by 23 points to 73 percent. It fell among Republicans by 21 points, to 31 percent. Approval rating among independents moved up five points to 53 percent. As recently as this spring, Republicans and Democrats had almost identical positive opinions on the Supreme Court.
Opinions of Roberts are also divided along partisan lines, with a majority of Democrats having a favorable view compared to only three in ten Republicans. That split should surprise no one—even though Roberts’ vote did. Indeed, we learned Monday he almost went the other way. (Cocktail-party trivia: Then-Senator Obama opposed Roberts’ confirmation.)
On HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher last Friday, panelists engaged in a lively discussion on the matter, with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria offering, “You have to give Roberts a lot of credit. … I think he did it because he is a politician in the best sense of the word. The person leading one of the three branches of government has to think about the power of that branch of government. The Supreme Court has no power to tax or to spend. It has no army. All its power comes from legitimacy,” he said, citing figures for steep declines in support for the high court overall since the 1980s. “I think he realized that another 5-4 decision that would overturn the signature achievement of the first two years would be too much and it would make it impossible for [the court] to have credibility going forward,” he said.
In response, host Maher offered, “I agree with that and there is a positive in that. But it also makes me so cynical because it makes me think that when they decide about the law, the law is the last thing in their minds. They make their decisions and then they find whatever they need to back up the law.”
Maher’s cynicism aside, it’s refreshing that at least one branch of government still seems capable of producing some surprises that don’t fall right along party lines. Now if only Roberts’ bold move could influence the other branches of government to reach across the aisle in the righteous interest of fairness and democracy rather than politics.
Alesandra Dubin is iVote's chief election news blogger and a Los Angeles-based writer. Follow her on Twitter: @alicedubin.