The Supreme Court’s highly anticipated ruling on Obama’s healthcare reforms could come any day now. Whatever the verdict, expect much ado about the hotly debated role of broccoli in healthcare and arcane explanations of the Commerce Clause that is at the center of the legal case against the individual mandate. But buried deep in hearings filled with legalese and judicial sparring was a short exchange that illuminates an American ideal that truly hangs in the balance with this decision—the idea that in a civilized society, we do not sit idly by and watch our neighbors die.
The specific back-and-forth in question occurred on the third day of the hearings between Justice Antonin Scalia and Solicitor General Donald Verilli, the administration official charged with defending the law in court. It went like this:
GENERAL VERRILLI: No. It’s because you’re going—in the health care market, you’re going into the market without the ability to pay for what you get, getting the health care service anyway as a result of the social norms that allow—that—to which we’ve obligated ourselves so that people get health care.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, don’t obligate yourself to that. Why—you know?
GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, I can’t imagine that that—that the Commerce Clause would —would forbid Congress from taking into account this deeply embedded social norm.
JUSTICE SCALIA: You—you could do it.
If you are not a frequent watcher of the Court and therefore not fluent in the cadences of judicial banter, this short, seemingly banal interchange in an exhaustive debate may not have even registered. The “deeply embedded social norm” that Verilli refers to—in fact seems confused that he has to explain to Justice Scalia—is the norm that dictates that people will step in to aid others who are ailing or in danger of death.
Scalia’s statement that “you could do it [defy these norms]” eerily evoked the appalling moment at the September 2011 Republican presidential debate when the audience wildly applauded Wolf Blitzer’s stunned probing of whether candidate Ron Paul would allow a 30-year-old uninsured man in a healthcare emergency to die. “Yes!” shouted unashamed audience members, turning a presidential debate into something reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum. When Justice Scalia argued against the social norms that Verilli was presuming sacrosanct, he was essentially saying, “Let him die!”