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Questions about chief justice's health-care ruling could have lasting impact

Speculation persists over why Chief Justice John Roberts joined liberals to uphold the President Obama's signature health-care reform law, and that could affect the Supreme Court.

By Staff writer / July 3, 2012

President Obama greets Chief Justice John Roberts before his State of the Union Address on Capitol Hill in this file photo. Breaking with the court's other conservative justices, Roberts allowed the president's signature health-care reform to go forward with its aim of covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File

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Washington

Unprecedented leaks of behind-the-scenes information at the US Supreme Court are raising questions about whether the threat of political attacks and other potential criticism played a role in the high court’s recent decision to uphold President Obama’s health-care reform law.

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The most detailed leaks came in a CBS News report over the weekend, suggesting that Chief Justice John Roberts may have switched sides in the high-profile case in part to insulate the court and his own legacy as chief justice from election-year criticism should the court strike down the massive reform law.

President Obama and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, among others, made statements after oral arguments in the case suggesting that any decision overturning the health-care law would be the illegitimate work of conservative judicial activists on the Supreme Court.

The warning was clear: The Supreme Court and the justices themselves were about to become fair game in the president’s campaign for reelection.

Now, a week after the Supreme Court announced its opinion upholding the health-care law, Justice Roberts is being accused of having caved in to threats of political pressure.

The problem with such accusations is that they are difficult to prove – or disprove. Even worse, if the perception spreads that the chief justice is susceptible to outside pressure, the court will likely come under even more pressure and criticism in future cases – even if the perception is untrue.

Liberal columnists who favor the health-care law are praising Roberts for supposedly rising above conservative politics to give the case fair adjudication. The chief justice exemplified a kind of noble leadership, intent on keeping the court above any taint of politics, they suggest.

Some conservatives were less charitable, branding Roberts a traitor. Although Roberts essentially agreed with the court’s conservative wing that the law was unconstitutional, he used his power as chief justice wielding a crucial fifth vote to ensure that the case was decided in a way that upheld the health-care reform law.

These conservative analysts, who oppose the health-care law, accuse Roberts of deliberately shaping his decision to mitigate an election-year political backlash against the Supreme Court – and Roberts himself.

Controversial report

Into this mix comes an intriguing CBS News report citing inside sources claiming that Roberts initially voted to strike down the health-care reform law but later changed his mind and switched sides to uphold it.

According to the report, Roberts abandoned his conservative colleagues and joined forces with the court’s liberal wing in what the report suggests was an effort to avoid partisan criticism of the Supreme Court.

The account, by CBS News Correspondent Jan Crawford, was based on two unnamed sources “with specific knowledge of the deliberations.”

Although the account suggested that concern about outside political pressure may have influenced Roberts’s switch, his precise motives are not identified.

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