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Chief Justice Roberts fends off speculation about his health-care ruling

Some analysts say Chief Justice John Roberts switched sides in upholding the Affordable Care Act. He jokes that he's headed to an 'impregnable island fortress' to avoid such questions.

By Staff writer / June 30, 2012

Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts speaking at a program held by the Judicial Conference of the District of Columbia Circuit in Farmington, Pa. on Friday.

Ann Wilkins/US Courts Circuit Executive's Office/AP


Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts jokes that he’s headed for an "impregnable island fortress" to avoid questions about the startling health-care decision he wrote.

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Poring over the 2,700-page ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal speculate that the Chief Justice actually changed his mind in mid-deliberation, flipping from the reliably-conservative foursome to join with the predictably-liberal quartet to become the swing vote in one of the court’s most important decisions in a generation.

Meanwhile, far-right commentators Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck go ballistic – Limbaugh being challenged by gleeful progressives to stand by his earlier pledge to leave the country if what he derides as “Obamacare” is upheld, Beck weepily declaring that Roberts has “sold us out” as he hawks $30 T-shirts with the Chief Justice’s visage and the single word “Coward.”

QUIZ: How much do you know about health-care reform?

Roberts is a relatively young man who well could see even more divisive and historically-important decisions come before his court. But until then, the ACA ruling stands as the central ruling under his jurisdiction.

It’s left legal analysts and commentators speculating about who has the most to gain politically – President Obama or presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In some ways, it could both help and hurt each of them.

Perhaps more interesting has been speculation over how and why Roberts came to vote the way he did – knocking down the argument that ACA’s individual mandate is constitutional under the Commerce Clause but upholding the mandate as allowable under Congress’s taxing power.

If he did pivot from one conclusion to another – from killing ACA’s major provision to crafting a way to explain and therefore uphold it – “this is far more damaging to the Court's institutional integrity that the Chief Justice is known to revere than any ruling against ObamaCare,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized.

“The political class and legal left conducted an extraordinary campaign to define such a decision as partisan and illegitimate. If the Chief Justice capitulated to this pressure, it shows the Court can be intimidated and swayed from its constitutional duties,” the editorial charges.

“There is nothing improper about a justice changing his or her mind on a case before the decision is delivered,” Robert Barnes and Del Quentin Wilber write in the Washington Post. “But the insinuation [is] that Roberts may have been motivated by a desire to spare recriminations from the image of the court’s five justices appointed by Republican presidents overturning a landmark bill passed by congressional Democrats and signed by Obama.”

For his part, Roberts offers a bemused “no comment” while displaying the equanimity of a man not given to second-guessing himself.

Speaking at a judicial conference Friday, Roberts noted that he’s about to spend two weeks teaching a class on the island nation of Malta.

"Malta, as you know, is an impregnable island fortress. It seemed like a good idea," Roberts said, drawing laughter from about 300 judges, attorneys and others at a Pennsylvania resort.

He was asked what he thought his court's legacy would be in 50 years and "how one recent opinion might fit into that.”

"Well, I won't answer anything that has to do with the second part of that," Roberts said. But he said he hopes that the court under him is remembered as one that "did our job according to the Constitution, of protecting equal justice under the law."

Regarding Thursday’s ruling and the firestorm of comment and criticism it has generated, Roberts was asked if it bothered him that he can't respond to his critics.

"No," he said, his brief answer hanging in the air to more laughter.

The report includes material from the Associated Press.

QUIZ: How much do you know about health-care reform?


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