Chief Justice says judges aren’t political. True or false?

Chief Justice John Roberts says federal judges are not political. They are nonpartisan umpires of disputes under the law.

Or, in fact, do federal judges create law for partisan reasons, when they should limit their judgments to simply following the law?

The answer is a firm “maybe.”

Conservatives want judges to uphold the existing law and even the thinking of the Constitution’s drafters. Liberals see the country as continually changing, meaning judges must reconsider legal norms.

Of course, federal judges are often selected by the president based on their view of the law, conservative or liberal. That may look like partisanship, though Roberts claims the results are not political.

But a recent federal court decision in Texas that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional came from a judge who reliably decides cases in line with GOP policy.

The Supreme Court had ruled the ACA was constitutional because it included a tax. The federal government has unlimited authority to tax, potentially making any tax law constitutional. The ACA taxed any person who did not get health insurance coverage despite the individual mandate to obtain coverage.

Last year, Congress had lowered that tax rate to zero. The widely held belief that the ACA’s individual mandate was eliminated is a major myth. There is now simply no penalty for ignoring it. The taxing authority remains in the law and the rate could be changed by Congress.

The Texas judge found that, without a tax being collected, there is no tax and the entire law is unconstitutional. He thought Congress had meant to repeal the ACA, but, while it cut the tax, it used a procedure that intentionally prevented outright repeal.

ACA supporters argued that the Texas judge had allowed his Republican, anti-ACA political views to guide his judicial reasoning. He had ignored parts of the law that contained other taxes and some which could easily stand on their own even if parts of the law were unconstitutional.

Texas federal courts are full of conservative Bush and Trump appointees. They usually can be relied upon to support opponents of Obama-era laws.

Of course, he could merely be incompetent, not political. With scores of federal judges whipped through the confirmation process by Senate Leader McConnell, some mistakes are inevitable. And some judges change for the worse once on the bench.

By contrast, in Maine, a new federal judge, appointed by President Trump, left no doubt that he could rise above partisanship. He faced a case that demonstrated the kind of work judges must do, leading losers to charge incorrectly that judges are making law.

Maine has ranked choice voting, which allows a voter to rank all candidates on the ballot in order of preference. If a voter’s favorite trails, his or her second choice vote then becomes a first choice vote for one of the top candidates. If you voted for one of the two front-runners, your vote remains the same.

Does this process violate the constitutional principle of one-person, one-vote? That is what the judge had to decide. His decision would determine if the incumbent GOP representative would lose the congressional seat.

Some people argue that voters who originally picked one of the top two candidates never gets to change their vote as candidates are eliminated. Voters for trailing candidates, who are dropped out, get another vote for one of the surviving candidates. That was Rep. Poliquin’s view.

The other view is that each voter gets the same chance to vote for all the candidates on the ballot, so none gets more votes than another. If the voter chooses not to make all possible choices, that is the voter’s right but does not undermine one-person, one-vote.

Each side can argue, based on other court decisions and supposed voter or legislative intent, that their interpretation is correct. This kind of debate occurs in most court cases, even though the majority of matters have nothing to do with constitutional questions.

This voter-enacted law had no ready answer about which view is correct. That’s why we must have judges decide, and they must be independent of either side.

Here, the judge, a Republican appointee, ruled against the position of the Republican candidate, costing him the election. Did he make law? Or did he do the judge’s essential job of making an independent decision in an honest dispute?

Presidents may make appointments of judges who they hope will support their policies. But judges are not political players. Life terms are meant to ensure their independence. The record shows a mixed result.


Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.