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Chief Justice Roberts' ideological curveball steals show

By David Goldstein / McClatchy Newspapers

LAST UPDATED: 2:13 a.m. HST, Jun 29, 2012

WASHINGTON » At his confirmation hearings in 2005, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said he saw himself as an "umpire," and that "nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire." No doubt nobody did Thursday, either, when spectators packed the U.S. Supreme Court and clogged the front steps awaiting its ruling on the health care law.

But Roberts turned out to be the surprise attraction, a conservative nominated by President George W. Bush who had sided with the court's liberal wing when it announced the 5-4 outcome to uphold President Barack Obama's key domestic achievement.

"I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat," Roberts told his Senate inquisitors seven years ago. But in his ruling, he certainly threw a curveball few had expected. Not only did Roberts bail out Obama, who as a senator had voted against Roberts for the court, he also snuffed out one of the Republican Party's biggest lines of attacks.


The storied history of health care reform in America:

A hospital in Texas originates group health insurance. Dallas teachers pay 50 cents a month to cover hospital care. The plan grows into Blue Cross.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt favors creating national health insurance, but decides to push for Social Security first.

Saying medical care is a right of all Americans, President Harry Truman calls on Congress to create a national insurance program but can't get it passed.

Under President Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, Medicare for people age 65 and older and Medicaid for the poor is signed into law.

President Richard Nixon puts forth but never realizes a plan to cover all Americans through private insurers.

Congress passes a law requiring that employers let former workers stay on the company health care plan for 18 months after leaving a job, with the worker bearing the cost.

Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a sweeping health care plan central to her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She loses to Barack Obama, who promotes his own less comprehensive plan.

Congress passes the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, designed to extend health care coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people.

Supreme Court upholds the individual insurance requirement at the heart of Obama's historic health care overhaul, allowing the law to proceed.

Source: Associated Press


The chief justice may have had larger, more long-term concerns on his mind than this year's presidential election.

"For him to have taken a very predictable ideological position would have meant that he wasn't a particularly independent legal thinker, and it's very difficult to get your place at the head of the line of justices until you've somehow made your own mark," said Steven Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

Liberals praised the decision, but conservatives were livid.

"His reputation is forever stained in the eyes of conservatives, and there will be no rehabilitating of it," Brent Bozell told the website The Daily Caller.

Roberts had previously been a federal appeals court judge, and a conservative Republican Washington insider before that, who did stints at the Justice Department, the White House and a top Washington law firm.

Roberts clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist before Rehnquist moved up to chief justice. At his confirmation hearings, Roberts called Rehnquist a "mentor," one who also had a moment when he confounded legal and political expectations. In 2003 Rehnquist sided with the court's liberals by ruling that states had to comply with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, a Clinton administration accomplishment.

Laurence Tribe, a liberal professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School who taught Roberts and Obama, said he was pleased that Roberts "saved the day," not just on the health care law, but also "perhaps the court, whose place as a legal institution had begun to fall into dangerous disrepute."

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