The Supreme Court recently concluded debate on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's health care reform. The three days of deliberations are said to have been "unprecedentedly long" and the resulting decision, expected around June, is predicted to be "historic" in terms of the political fallout.
But not so fast! While the case is certainly very important and politically charged, it is anything but unprecedented or historic.
Yet, this is not new in American history. We have had a number of landmark cases decided by the Supreme Court during presidential elections.
For instance, during the 1856 presidential race, with the country in the grips of ugly sectionalism on account of slavery, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Candidate James Buchanan even asked the court to wait until after the election to rule, hoping that it would minimize the contentiousness.
They waited, but to no avail. In 1857, as Buchanan was being inaugurated, the court ruled blacks did not have the right of citizenship and that Congress could not ban slavery in the territories. This decision crystalized the core debates over slavery and expedited the sad race to disunion.
A similar incident occurred in 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was decided during the presidential contest between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. The infamous case supported the racist policies of Louisiana that mandated separate rail cars for blacks and whites and codified the "separate but equal" doctrine of racial segregation. Plessy impacted the presidential campaign, while also soiling the optimism of the Gilded Age and Industrial Revolution and foreshadowing the racial tensions awaiting the nation.
The high court debated two of the most contentious issues in American politics in 1972. In Furman v. Georgia, many forms of capital punishment were invalidated after a 5-4 vote. While states scrambled to bring their laws within compliance, politicians began campaigning for and against the death penalty. Then, in the weeks leading up to the November election, oral arguments were heard in the touchstone abortion case of Roe v. Wade.
The Roe ruling was handed down in 1973 around the time of Richard Nixon's inauguration, the timing spurred politicization of reproductive rights and heightened existing political tensions over Vietnam, civil rights, and Nixon's reelection.
Nor is the current health care case unique in terms of its alleged "historic" examination of the federal government's authority, use of mandates, and taxation powers. In fact, several lower courts have already ruled on this case, with most of them upholding the law.
It must also be remembered there were legal challenges to the 1935 Social Security Act and the creation of Medicare in 1965. For instance, in 1937 the Supreme Court issued rulings on the same day for three landmark cases that upheld the constitutionality of Social Security's expansion of federal power. More recently, in 2006, the high court sided with the Bush administration's establishment of a "donut hole" and other requirements for prescription drug coverage under Medicare.
Even the length of time allotted to the current case on Obama's health care reform is not "unprecedented." While oral arguments were long, there were similarly lengthy hearings by the Supreme Court in history, including as recently as 1966.
The justices are now sequestered from the public eye, contemplating the constitutionality of individual mandates and other aspects of health care reform. While they know that their decision will have serious constitutional, economic, and political consequences during this election year, they know the country and court have been down this path before. What is new, sadly, is the sheer partisanship of the debate.
Robert Watson, Ph.D. is Professor and Coordinator of American Studies at Lynn University