When the Supreme Court issues the Obamacare decision (very soon), I will post a link to the full text of the opinion. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in the result to read the actual text of the opinion. Most media coverage will almost certainly be sensationalized (especially as a result of the upcoming presidential election). So, be skeptical about what you hear/read about the case.
The text of Supreme Court opinions can be intimidating, but it need not be. By understanding a few basic things, anyone can understand what the Court is talking about. This post provides a step-by-step guide to reading and understanding the Obamacare decision.
1. Skip the “Syllabus”
This is the first thing you will see, and it will probably make little sense unless you are a lawyer, so skip it.
2. Find the Table of Contents
Is it labeled “table of contents”? Nope. That would be too easy. Instead, it looks something like this:
ROBERTS, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J, filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. BREYER, J. filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR and KAGAN, JJ., joined.
This paragraph indicates which justices wrote which opinions, serving as a rough table of contents for the material that follows. It will tell you a lot about the case if you understand it. The “opinion of the court” is the majority opinion. That is the one that really matters. Other justices can write concurring opinions (they agree with the result but not the reasoning) and/or dissenting opinions (they disagree with the result).
In order to understand the table of contents, you will have to have a basic understanding of who the justices are. Here is a list of the justices, their ideological slant, and how they are expected to vote:
- Chief Justice Roberts: conservative, likely vote to strike down individual mandate
- Justice Kennedy: swing vote, leans conservative, his vote will likely decide the case
- Justice Scalia: conservative, likely vote to strike down individual mandate
- Justice Alito: conservative, very likely vote to strike down individual mandate
- Justice Thomas: very conservative, almost certain vote to strike down individual mandate
- Justice Kagan: liberal, likely vote to uphold Obamacare
- Justice Sotomayor: liberal, likely vote to uphold Obamacare
- Justice Ginsburg: liberal, likely vote to uphold Obamacare
- Justice Breyer: very liberal, almost certain vote to uphold Obamacare
Because the Obamacare case is about multiple issues, all of the “other” opinions, (the opinions other than the majority opinion) will probably be “concurring in part and dissenting in part.” Don’t let that phase you. Just focus on who signed the majority opinion.
Now, reread the example table of contents at the beginning of this section. Does it make sense? Notice that, Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito signed the majority opinion. What does that mean? It means that if the actual table of contents looks identical, the result will be very bad for the Obama Administration. How do I know? Because all of the conservative justices signed the majority opinion in this example. If most of the justices who sign the majority opinion are liberal, the result will be good for the Obama Administration.
3. Read the Opinion of the Court
This is where the decision really starts. It will look something like this example from another case:
1 Cite as: 566 U. S. ____ (2012)
Opinion of the Court
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
CHRISTINE ARMOUR, ET AL., PETITIONERS v. CITY OF INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA, ET AL.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIANA
[June 4, 2012]
JUSTICE BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.
Blah, blah, blah…
This is the majority opinion and the one that really matters. It will be long. If you want to skip to the parts that talk about the individual mandate (I wouldn’t blame you), there will be sections in each of the opinions that will talk exclusively about that issue. Nobody knows what sections they will be yet, but I will try to identify those sections on the day that the opinion comes down.
4. Understand What to Expect Before Reading the Opinion
I have previously written a three part guide to understanding the legal arguments involved in the case. A quicker and simpler explanation can be found in this hypothetical conversation. A more conservative leaning explanation can be found in this blog post. You can also read the transcript of the oral arguments if you want a deeper understanding of the case.
5. Read the Concurring and Dissenting Opinions
These follow the majority opinion, and they don’t technically matter. But the reason that the justices spend so much time (and so many pages) defending their decisions is so you, the public, can evaluate whether the decision was correct. So, give both sides a read before making any conclusions.
Note: The most conservative justice is Justice Thomas and the most liberal is probably Justice Breyer. Since there will probably be multiple concurring and dissenting opinions, you may want to skip the opinions of these two justices to save time and to focus on the arguments that could reasonably be expected to be adopted by the other members of the Court.