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How John Roberts upheld health-care law while limiting congressional power (+video)

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was with the majority on both sides of the ruling on the health-care reform law, upholding the law while finding that Congress had overstepped its authority.

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“The Framers gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it, and for over 200 years both our decisions and Congress’s actions have reflected this understanding,” he said. “There is no reason to depart from that understanding now.”

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The chief justice’s actions in the case were all about finding middle ground to maintain the status quo.

By positioning himself between the high court’s liberal wing and conservative wing, Roberts denied a fifth and decisive vote to the court’s conservatives who were poised to strike down the entire health-care law, not just the mandate.

It would have been a conservative constitutional landmark and perhaps the most significant assertion of judicial authority by the Supreme Court to police the federal-state balance of power since the New Deal in the 1930s.

It also would have set off a powder keg of partisan criticism of the high court for ruling so decisively against the president in an election year and for establishing firm limits on national power.

Instead, Roberts’s actions have managed to spare the court – and the chief justice himself – from becoming any more of a political target in the current election season.

Liberals praised the high court’s actions, and celebrated the survival of the besieged health-care law.

“Today the court affirmed its role as the neutral arbiter of the law for all Americans,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress.

Many conservatives expressed disappointment, with some saying the outcome of the case raises questions about Roberts’s commitment to what was called the “federalism revolution” at the Supreme Court under former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

“The court’s decision is alarming and deeply wrong,” said Steven Aden of the Alliance Defense Fund.

Others, however, saw Roberts’s maneuvers as offering a silver lining.

Richard Garnett, a law professor at Notre Dame and a former Rehnquist clerk, said it was “highly significant” that the court had retained a role in policing the boundaries of federal power. He said the action was “in keeping with the Rehnquist Court’s emphasis on federalism.”

Georgetown Law Professor Randy Barnett suggests it would be a mistake to view Thursday’s decision as a death knell for federalism.

“The Founders’ scheme of limited and enumerated powers has survived to fight another day,” he wrote on SCOTUSBLOG.

Others, still, were less impressed with the Solomonic maneuver.

“Today’s closely divided decision shows that the Supreme Court takes the need for constitutional limits on federal power seriously, but not seriously enough,” said Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University.

“Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion correctly recognizes that the Commerce Clause does not allow Congress to force people to purchase products they don’t want,” he said. “The problem is that he then allows Congress to impose almost any mandate it wants so long as it is structured as a so-called ‘tax.’ ”

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