Two recent blockbuster Supreme Court decisions were seen as a loss for those who recoil at the thought of racial profiling and for those who see no difference between a penalty, a tax and a fundamental infringement on individual rights. But wherever you stand on the issues of state-based immigration enforcement or mandatory health care, the decisions are a victory for independent thinkers.
Because of the Supreme Court's unique role, its rulings reinforce the winners and inflame the losers, further heating the inferno of ill will and partisanship that has become emblematic of national politics.
How refreshing then that the court — weighted by allegations of overly political hyperpartisanship — surprised us, giving our split, aggrieved electorate two examples in which individual justices voted outside the constraints of their political philosophies. By making tough decisions, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts gave inspiration to anyone who is weighing issues and historical contexts instead of focusing on political divisions.
Sotomayor had angered her liberal Hispanic fans in April by being outwardly sympathetic to parts of Arizona's immigration law and skeptical of the Obama administration's arguments against it. At the time, I wondered if Hispanic support would erode for her if she did anything other than vote to strike down all four provisions of the law, but it didnt' happen.
Perhaps because of an desire of the Democrat-leaning Hispanic electorate to paint the court's decision — provisions allowing police to arrest someone based on the belief that a deportable offense was committed and criminalizing illegal immigrants for working or getting caught without their immigration papers were struck down — as a win for President Obama, dissent was mostly kept in check. Very few Hispanic voices were calling it a crushing defeat, and almost no one criticized Sotomayor for joining the majority.
At least Sotomayor wasn't bashed as a "traitor" like Chief Justice Roberts has been by the far right in the aftermath of the court allowing the Affordable Care Act to move forward mostly intact. But unlike Sotomayor's experience, Roberts has gotten massive plaudits from his former detractors across the aisle.
The best roundup I've seen so far is from The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz, detailing the "media man-crush" on Roberts, "the new liberal heartthrob" who "saved Obamacare." Kurtz lasers in on the fact that conservatives are depicted as having grown or evolved only when they lurch leftward.
While a dramatic maturation or change of heart makes for great TV drama, I prefer the more sober assessments that call Roberts a pragmatist who compromised to make decisions that won the war for the conservative principle of limited federal authority even if an important political battle was lost. This is called integrity.
Both Sotomayor and Roberts have shattered the stereotypes that had been heaped on them by others. And we have gained two powerful role models.