GWEN IFILL: A single week in June and our world has shifted on health care, on gay marriage, and on race relations. Is the hard part just beginning? We assess and explain tonight on Washington Week.
PROTESTERS: (From video.) Love conquers hate! Love conquers hate! Love conquers hate!
MS. IFILL: An astounding week in which the Supreme Court affirms same-sex marriage –
JIM OBERGEFELL: (From video.) It’s my hope that the term “gay marriage” will soon be a thing of the past; that from this day forward it will simply be “marriage”
MS. IFILL: – rescues the nation’s health care law –
PROTESTERS: (From video.) Health care is a human right! ACA is here to stay! ACA is here to stay!
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) Five years in, this is no longer about a law. This is not about a – the Affordable Care Act as legislation or Obamacare as a political football. This is health care in America.
MS. IFILL: – and knocks back housing discrimination.
And that’s not all. Confederate battle flags, long defended as symbols of heritage, begin to come down.
SOUTH CAROLINA GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY (R): (From video.) A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come.
MS. IFILL: As South Carolina buries the victims of last week’s massacre.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (Singing “Amazing Grace.”)
MS. IFILL: We tackle the rapid shifts in law, politics and public opinion, tonight in a special edition of Washington Week with Pete Williams, justice correspondent for NBC News; Joan Biskupic, legal affairs editor for Reuters; Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics; and Michele Norris, host and special correspondent for NPR.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. We are seldom happier to broadcast live on Friday nights than when we have real, consequential news to report. This week, much of it occurred at the Supreme Court, which handed down two decisions that promise to change the course of the nation in different ways. Today it was a 5-4 decision to legalize marriage for same-sex couples in all 50 states. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said, among other things: “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
In the end, this language seems so personal for the – for Justice Kennedy, Joan.
JOAN BISKUPIC: It was, Gwen. He’s been building toward this moment for about 20 years, since 1996, when he first authored the Court’s big, major gay rights ruling, and then he did subsequent ones. And it was very personal. For 10 minutes he read excerpts. He talked about people’s identity, about marriage being such a keystone of society, about the children of married couple – of same-sex couples and how they needed their dignity. He used the word “dignity” about 10 times in his opinion, and words like “dignity” have echoed in all four that he’s written for the Court majority. And it’s surprising because here he is, a conservative centrist, was put on the Court by Ronald Reagan in 1988. Who would have thought he would have emerged this way? But this has been where he has shown his voice most.
MS. IFILL: There were four separate dissents on this. Each person who dissented wrote their own. And one of them was from Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote “Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution,” he wrote. “It had nothing to do with it.” Pete?
PETE WILLIAMS: Well, this was the theme of all the dissenters, although they said it in a different way, which is this decision is so important it ought to be made by the voters and not by the courts. And a case like this, by the way, really shows the fault lines on this Supreme Court because you’re talking about a constitutional right. What the liberals said today, Justice Kennedy said, that you can’t deny liberty to same-sex couples; that would violate the Constitution. The conservatives said there is no such right, you’re reaching and finding rights in the Constitution that don’t exist.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: One of the things that we all think is – you know, if we see this decision, it’s now a closed question, right, in the states. How many states were affected? And then what happens next?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, there were 13, 14 states that didn’t allow it. Actually, Alabama was right on the border because Alabama had been declared – its marriage ban had been struck down, but the state officials had said, no, we’re not going to give out licenses. So it was right on the border there. And we’re wondering, will other states protest that way? But so far we haven’t seen any signs of it. The ruling doesn’t take effect immediately, but some states have already said that they will allow it.
MS. IFILL: There were marriages already today.
MS. BISKUPIC: Exactly.
MR. WILLIAMS: In all but Louisiana.
MS. BISKUPIC: So people are moving ahead with this for sure. So that’s – it’s the law of the land. But there are other questions now arising about other forms of discrimination against gays.
MICHELE NORRIS: Well, it’s curious because people have wondered whether, if it became the law of the land, if it would become much like abortion post-Roe v. Wade, which was, you know, a legal right but one that was very hard to exercise depending on where you live.
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, it’s interesting. The chief justice hinted at that in his dissent, the idea that, is this being forced on Americans just as the wind is at the – their backs, of gay people, to have this forced on people, will there be a backlash? Will people close their minds towards gay people? But it doesn’t seem like that’s happening. And it also seems like this was so – the nation was ready for it, especially with Justice Kennedy himself, as I said –
MS. IFILL: Who now seems to be a gay rights icon, as far as I can tell.
MR. WILLIAMS: Totally.
MS. BISKUPIC: For sure. For sure, given where he’s been. But the thing is that there are just so many more questions. You know, parental rights vary state by state, for adoption questions, for custody questions. And remember, discrimination against gay men and lesbians is still essentially legal nationwide in other contexts.
MS. IFILL: Pete?
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, you can get married today and fired tomorrow, basically, is the way the law works now. It’s interesting how the states are going to handle this. As a government matter, as what the state governments do, that seems pretty clear. Whether they like it or not, they’re stuck with it. And even some of the attorneys general who fought this very hard have said, OK, we give up, we lost. What’s, I think, where you’re going to see some action is businesses and religious groups. Some states are already saying, you know, if you – if you’re a county clerk and you have a religious objection, maybe you shouldn’t be compelled to do this. So there may be some legal skirmishing over that as well.
MS. IFILL: I want to go inside the courtroom, where you were today, Joan. You know, the way this works is we know there are these big decisions in the offing, but we don’t know when or how they’re going to come out. What was it like inside there?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, first of all, we knew that they were going to be coming back on Monday, so there was some sentiment that the Supreme Court would save this biggest decision till Monday. But no, it starts to be announced by Justice Kennedy, and sitting in the front were several gay rights lawyers who had been coming day in and day out just in case it was going to be announced. And people started tearing up in that bar section as Justice Kennedy’s reading from the bench. So it was – it was quite a big moment there. You could feel it. And then, when Justice – Chief Justice John Roberts for the first time in his 10 years on the bench read his dissent out loud, it was quite, quite dramatic.
MS. IFILL: And out on the steps, there was singing, there was dancing, Pete.
MR. WILLIAMS: The Gay Men’s Chorus was there singing selections, Broadway tunes and also patriotic songs. (Chuckles.) But it was very unusual because normally when you have something like this happen you have a group of people who are there to see the decision, and then after 10 or 15 minutes they go home. This crowd just kept growing. They shut off one lane of traffic on the street that’s between the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol. And people sort of surged up onto the Court’s Plaza, which is normally hermetically sealed to big crowds on days of decisions, and the police just sort of gave up. And tonight, even just before this broadcast, people were still out there just kind of standing around celebrating.
MS. IFILL: Well, that wasn’t the only big decision this week. That was just today.
Yesterday, the Court ruled 6-3 to strike down a grave threat to the president’s signature legislative accomplishment, his health care law. This time it was the chief justice himself who authored the defining majority opinion, writing “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” So the chief justice ruled on Congress’ intent, not necessarily those specific four words which were at issue, Pete.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. So the marriage case is about interpreting the Constitution. This is the Court’s other line of work, which is reading federal statutes. And the issue here was who gets the subsidies that make health insurance more affordable. The conservative challengers had said you only get them if you live in states that – if you get your insurance on, quote, “an exchange established by the State.” And they said those four words clearly mean you don’t get the insurance if you’re the majority of people who have bought insurance on healthcare.gov, on the federal exchange.
What Chief Justice Roberts said and what the 6-3 majority said in this case is you have to look at the health care law as an interlocking set of parts. Insurance companies can’t deny coverage for preexisting conditions, everybody has to buy insurance to put more money in the pool and spread the risk, and you have subsidies to make it affordable. Take the subsidies away, the thing collapses, and that clearly isn’t what Congress meant.
MS. IFILL: This time I’m going to ask you about the dissents, Joan. This was Antonin Scalia’s dissent and disagreement. He wrote: “Words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is ‘established by the State.’ It is hard to come up with a clearer way to limit tax credits to state Exchanges than to use the words ‘established by the State.’” So that’s where he landed on this. He said that they were –
MS. BISKUPIC: He did. He did, and he just scoffed at the idea that the majority was going to try to interpret this – that provision in a broader context. And the chief justice said, look, this thing wasn’t written in any kind of clear-cut, perfect way, but that’s what legislation is all about. And we’re going to go – we’re going to try to give it a fair reading and a fair interpretation.
Justice Scalia’s dissent – again, voiced from the bench, so we had two very dramatic days up there – was –
MR. WILLIAMS: And he’s sitting right next to the chief, by the way.
MS. BISKUPIC: Right. Is just dripping –
MS. IFILL: Right. The two of them are kind of not looking at each other.
MS. BISKUPIC: Is just dripping with sarcasm, and the chief justice is just stone-faced throughout until one moment, when Justice Scalia says – reminds everyone that the Court had upheld the law back in 2012 with the chief justice swinging over with the liberals. And he said, we might as well just call this SCOTUScare. And what – SCOTUS is the acronym for the Supreme Court of the United States. And that was the only time that the chief broke into a little bit of a grin. But otherwise, hey, he had the majority.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, that’s a good segue to the question I had, which is, in 2012, with John Roberts’ first rescue of the Affordable Care Act, how is what John Roberts did in that majority in 2012 different than what we saw just this week?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the main – I would just say, and Joan can answer too, my thought about it is that decision three years ago was everybody going off in a different direction. This was quite clean. You had the majority, you had the dissent.
Secondly, this was 6-3. Anthony Kennedy was just veins sticking out in his neck opposed to the law last time. This time, on a totally different question, granted, he was all along.
And the other thing is, the majority opinion sort of accepts the whole premise of Obamacare. They just say, this is how it works and that’s why we interpret the law this way. Next question.
MS. BISKUPIC: You know, you could even see it in how Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion. Three years ago, he went through some – a complicated rendition to uphold it. He had to stitch together various rationales, yinged and yanged. This time he was very clear, confident as he read, and you really felt like, look, this was a statutory interpretation matter; it wasn’t really heavy lifting when it comes to what the Supreme Court actually does. And he was much more comfortable. And then to bring along Anthony Kennedy was something.
MS. NORRIS: Is it perhaps because they’re not talking about something in the abstract, something in theory? I mean, this is a law that is in place.
MS. BISKUPIC: You know, that might be part of it, Michele, because during oral arguments a lot of talk went on about how chaotic things could be in the states if suddenly these subsidies were rolled back. Face it, the insurance industry is dependent on them, patients are dependent on them. You know, the states kind of like the federal exchanges set up because their residents will get the subsidies without them running the exchanges.
MS. IFILL: Is the idea now that this is still a flawed – might be still a flawed law, but it’s a constitutionally flawed law?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the constitutionality has been accepted, but there’s still a couple of challenges out there – although you did have the feeling, after this decision, that it’s passed the acid test. There’s a – there’s a lawsuit lurking about whether the thing started on the wrong side of Congress and they didn’t follow the Constitution in how it originated, and there’s a lawsuit, remember, over the administration delaying the start of the health insurance mandate for employers. But it seems like it’s been through the big tests.
MS. IFILL: Well, I think – I think it’s fair to say that there was a huge sigh of relief. We saw photographs of hugging going on in the Oval Office at the White House over this.
MR. WILLIAMS: A lot of hugging this week. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: A lot of hugging. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, hugging everywhere. Doesn’t happen a lot in Washington.
Well, the week’s other big story also told us the story of our shifting society, this time arising from the pain of race-based conflict. The president started the week with blunt words about why racism will not be erased anytime soon. He spoke on a podcast about the roots of racism and unsettled some with the bluntness of his language.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From audio.) Racism we are not cured of. And – and – and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. We have – societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 2(00) to 300 years prior.
MS. IFILL: It’s safe to say the president was more artful today as he delivered the eulogy at the elaborate funeral for Emanuel AME Church Pastor Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina.
Let’s start by talking about how the – let’s listen.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) (In progress) – the flag from the state capitol would not be an act of political correctness. It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought – the cause of slavery – was wrong. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.
MS. IFILL: Let’s start, Alexis, by talking about how the White House has responded this week to those horrific shootings in Charleston.
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, it’s really been a week of reaction to it. And of course, the president at first, when we saw him come into the Briefing Room at the White House reacting to the deaths of nine people in Charleston, he immediately was torn between his somber frustration and then agitation. And he blended right away together the deaths of someone he knew, the Reverend Pinckney, and then also this idea that guns was a part of this picture and something he wanted to bring back into the frame. And he got criticized a little bit about that, in addition, right away to his discussion that some of the avenues have closed to address the question about guns.
MS. IFILL: But he in the end has talked about gun violence three times this week.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And he has come back to it again and again. He ended up doing an additional speech to mayors. He did it in the interview that we talked about. So you can see the president, our first African-American president, a man in his second term, really wrestling with this idea of how do I bring this back into the discussion. The White House is trying to – and you could hear the president do this today – talk about this in terms of economic opportunity, in terms of policing and criminal justice, in terms of education, in terms of policies, as well as – and I think this is the most interesting – is President Obama saying almost I’ve given up on Congress, and what I’m doing now is I’m talking to you, American people. You have a role in this, too. We want to hear from you. And when he talks about the Confederate flag, he’s definitely talking about that.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about what the American people are saying back to him and to each other. Michele, you curate a project called The Race Card Project, where people write to you about race and identity in six words or less, but mostly precisely six words. What kind of conversation has been going on online?
MS. NORRIS: It’s interesting because, after the massacre in Charleston, there was a lot of just pain and anguish, but also people putting that in context with the year that we’ve been living in. So it was a continuum of a long line of pain, you know, where people were also talking about – they send in six words within essays where they explain their stories, and talking about Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and others who have been killed in police shootings and the notion that black lives matter, and where are we safe.
MS. IFILL: Can I ask you about one of them? You wrote in a woman from – you sent us one woman from – Rebecca Murphy of Baltimore, Maryland, who wrote: “Tired of saying that we matter.” What was her story?
MS. NORRIS: And other people are talking about that. I mean, the notion that the term “black lives matter,” why do we even have to say that? Don’t all lives matter? And one of the things that was interesting is when the story started to unfold and you started to learn a little bit more about the shooter, Dylann Roof. People were quick to use this platform to express their concern that he was being portrayed as a loner, as someone who was misunderstood, as someone who didn’t represent something larger. And then, over time, as you saw the manifesto that he wrote and the flags that he carried, that sort of showed the other side of this conversation that poured into the inbox: people being concerned that Southerners were being cast with a very broad brush, seen as racist, and people who defend the Confederate flag, you know, eager to have their say, too.
MS. IFILL: One of them is Thaddeus from Nashville, Tennessee, who wrote you: “Don’t ask me to just forget.”
MS. NORRIS: Well, and you know, some of them are very ambiguous. But what he was saying don’t ask me is to forget my ancestors. I’m proud of my ancestors, they fought for something noble, a cause that he sees as noble. And he doesn’t particularly like the idea that he would be asked to forget about them, that they should be viewed through a veil of shame.
MR. WILLIAMS: May I go back on guns? You know, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, when he came into office made it quite clear that he wanted to pursue gun control. And it was the White House that shut him down and said, no, no, we’re not going there. What does – what does the president hope to accomplish by coming back to this issue? Whom does he think – who does he think will respond to this? State legislators? Who?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, in his – in the way he’s been talking about it, he is almost pointedly saying he’s giving up on Congress. Now, that’s not to say the conversation is not continuing in Congress. But what he’s saying is the complexion of Congress now, with Republican majorities, and the fact that we’re in a presidential year, he doesn’t think that’s going to happen at the federal level. The state level, he’s saying that there have been some efforts at some of the – at, you know, state and local levels to try to deal with this. But we’ve seen this in Washington, D.C., not successfully, right, in every case.
So what he’s arguing is about public opinion, and he’s right about public opinion. And some terrific, really in-depth surveys have been done, even after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, showing that the public has not changed its view all that dramatically, and big majorities would go for beefing up background checks or barring assault weapons or cutting down on those big magazines. And maybe the language that we’re using, the president is sort of arguing, the idea of control is what gets the National Rifle Association and lobbyists and Congress all in a political sweat.
MS. BISKUPIC: You know, I’d like to ask another question related to former Attorney General Eric Holder, because remember how quickly he came out on race early on in his tenure? I think it was the February after he came into office.
MS. IFILL: “Nation of cowards.”
MS. BISKUPIC: “Nation of cowards,” we don’t talk about race, we don’t talk at all about that. And the president kind of bristled at some of what Eric Holder said at the time. Who would have predicted –
MS. IFILL: The president’s people.
MS. SIMENDINGER: I think the president’s team. (Laughter.)
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, they’ve let him out for sure now. So is – what has changed? Is it him, the nation, it’s just so much requires this kind of response now?
MS. SIMENDINGER: One of the things the president says that has changed in his own mind is the repetition of this. He’s talked about the agony of seeing this happen again and again. And while we’re all talking, we know that this was going to happen in some other place, as sad as it is.
But the president has also been under tremendous criticism for being shy or reluctant to inject this into our political discourse and lead on this. And what was interesting in that podcast interview to me is, what did he tell the interviewer in the garage in California? He said, I’m fearless, right? He said he knows how to do the job now, and I’m fearless. And so in some – you know, to sing, I guess, at the eulogy to me is part of this idea in his mind that at the end I am not going to be accused of being fearful of talking about these issues.
MS. IFILL: One of the things the president seemed to do incrementally all week long was expand on that theme, and one of the things he did today in the course of his eulogy in South Carolina was to talk about how, you know, we don’t – we are past having a conversation about this anymore. But it doesn’t feel like we’re past it, at least – I don’t know whether your folks seem to think we’re past it.
MS. NORRIS: Well, the inbox is full, you know, all the time, and clearly these events suggest that we’re not past it. You know, he went on – it seemed like what he was saying is this national conversation where everyone sits down at the same time at 6:00 on Tuesday and has a conversation –
MS. IFILL: That’s what’s over.
MS. NORRIS: You know, that’s what’s probably over. But for people to have more constructive conversations where they not only talk to each other but listen to each other.
You know, Joan, to your question, what’s changed – you know, part of this is there was some discomfort around conversations about race because we don’t have them in the public sphere that often. And so perhaps it wasn’t just the president’s discomfort, which – I don’t think he’s – I don’t think he’s necessarily uncomfortable talking about race; he does it quite often – but the people around him. You know, in politics we don’t often talk in very open ways about this. We’ve had to because of a number of events that have happened. And so there’s a sort of growing comfort level on his part, but also on the part of all the people around him who probably didn’t come to the White House expecting that they would be leading a conversation on race in America.
MS. IFILL: We’ve got just a few seconds if you have –
MR. WILLIAMS: I was just going to say, you know, we had a big, decisive gay marriage ruling today that seems like we’re moving past it, but we also had a ruling with the Supreme Court reminding us that housing discrimination – racial housing discrimination is still very much with us.
MS. IFILL: But – (inaudible). It was amazing, a lot of moving pieces.
And unfortunately, we have to end our coverage of this remarkable week right now, for now. But our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Webcast Extra. There we’ll dive – delve a little bit more deeply into the repercussions from the week’s Supreme Court decisions and we’ll look forward to what comes next. That’s at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek later tonight and all weekend long. Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff over on the PBS NewsHour, and we’ll see you here again next week on Washington Week. Good night.