If the Supreme Court Says It, It Must Be True

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From a New York Times account of a Supreme Court colloquy on what will happen when -- OK, "if" -- five or more Justices vote to overturn the individual-mandate provision in the Obama health care bill:

220px-Antonin_Scalia,_SCOTUS_photo_portrait.jpgJustice Antonin Scalia [right, from Wikipedia] said an analysis of how to proceed could not be divorced from the realities of the political process in Washington, which he said was beset by "legislative inertia."

"My approach would say if you take the heart out of the statute," he said, "the statute's gone."

He explained his reasoning: "You're not going to get 60 votes in the Senate to repeal the rest. It's not a matter of enacting a new act. You've got to get 60 votes to repeal it. So the rest of the act is going to be the law."

Sigh. For those joining us late: according to  -- what's it called again? Oh, yes, the "Constitution" -- it takes a simple majority in the Senate to get things enacted, or repealed. These days that means 51 votes, not 60. Could Scalia have been thinking that 60 votes are necessary to override a presidential veto -- which is what a repeal of the health care law would involve if President Obama remains in office? No. Under that tricky "Constitution" again, a veto override takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate, or 67 votes, plus two thirds of the House as well.

If he wasn't referring to an override, I guess the answer is that even a sitting Justice on the Supreme Court has fully internalized the modern de facto amendment of the Constitution under which "you've got to get 60 votes" to get any business done, because business of any consequence will be filibustered. And of course he's in a position to tell us what the Constitution "really" means.

I fully realize that this was not the most egregious comment to come from the bench yesterday. On that I give you our own Andrew Cohen and Derek Thompson -- or the American Prospect's (and recently the Atlantic's) Garrett Epps, or Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, or the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, or  the New Yorker's John Cassidy or Jeffrey Toobin, and down through a list that could cover 50 additional names. These may bleak days for jurisprudence, but they are brighter if you think about the way today's Internet-based news system improves on the range, depth, timeliness, and traceability of analysis of public events. (Traceability? Here are transcripts of all three days' worth of arguments, downloadable and searchable from many places including our site.)

I will try to add my own log to this pyre of analysis later on. For now, this is just a note of how Scalia has yet again expanded our understanding of "originalism."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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