US President Barack Obama’s healthcare blast at the Supreme Court is provoking an inquisition into whether a law professor turned president unwisely trashed political and constitutional convention.
Few court watchers can recall a recent precedent for Obama’s public warning on Monday to the nine top justices in the US that his legacy-boosting health reform legislation should stand.
Presidents generally avoid comment on cases before the court, to avoid prejudicing proceedings and infecting the respected body with the polarized political stew swamping the rest of Washington.
However, Obama, ex-editor of the Harvard Law Review, said on Monday the court would take an “unprecedented” and “extraordinary” step if it overturned a law passed by a strong congressional majority — a questionable assertion at best.
His passionate intervention, on behalf of the most sweeping social legislation in half a century — and his trademark political achievement — sparked a heated debate among experts.
In lashing the court, it could be that Obama was simply venting frustration, after many commentators interpreted court arguments last week as a sign they will probably strike health reform down.
Or perhaps Obama was launching a calculated gambit to limit political damage to his November re-election bid should the court, which usually leans conservative, throw out the law in a ruling expected in June.
He may have also been trying to fire up his political base, which likes nothing better than a good spat over the Supreme Court.
Another theory is that Obama thought he could throw his weight around and influence judicial deliberations.
Critics argue that Obama infringed legal propriety and convention by dragging the court into a bitter political row.
“[His] attempt to intimidate the Supreme Court falls well beyond distasteful politics; it demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for our system of checks and balances,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said.
The Cato Institute’s Ilya Shapiro — who opposes the law’s mandate requiring all Americans to buy health insurance — said Obama’s intervention was “dangerous.”
“I think it threatens the independence of the Supreme Court. I think it could backfire because the justices don’t want to seem like they are political pawns,” he said.