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Roberts shows conscience for poor, business, partisanship

Friday - 6/29/2012, 11:35am  ET

Roberts.jpg
President Barack Obama greets Chief Justice John Roberts before he delivered his State of the Union Address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 27, 2010. Breaking with the court's other conservative justices, Roberts announced the judgment that allows the law to go forward with its aim of covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans. Roberts explained at length the court's view of the mandate as a valid exercise of Congress' authority to "lay and collect taxes." The administration estimates that roughly 4 million people will pay the penalty rather than buy insurance. (AP)

Roberts' Rules on Supreme Court Procedure

Paul Rothstein, Georgetown University law professor

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WASHINGTON - Empathy for the uninsured and disdain for partisanship contributed to the deciding vote on Obamacare from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, according to a former colleague of his and constitutional legal expert.

Many were surprised that the chief justice, appointed by conservative Republican George W. Bush, upheld the more liberal provisions of the Affordable Care Act, touted by President Barack Obama as the signature achievements of the health reform.

Paul Rothstein, law professor at Georgetown Law School, tells WTOP the man with whom he used to teach needed to land on "the right side of history" and "morality" as the deciding vote on an increasingly partisan court.

Roberts, who has suffered multiple strokes, must have recognized the luxuries afforded to him by his station, Rothstein says, and felt the need to help those who are not eligible for government health care or have a salary large enough to purchase private provisions.

The decision, however, may have made more enemies than friends for Roberts.

"It's a very odd decision," Rothstein says of Roberts' ruling to uphold the law's mandate for most to purchase health insurance or face a monetary penalty. "The conservative guy went liberal, but he also kind of changed the grounds on which the law would be upheld."

The Supreme Court had been considering whether Obama's health care law violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which governs Congress' power to regulate commerce across state lines. Roberts, instead, framed his argument that the imposed penalty is a tax, which is within Congress' rights to impose.

Check out the full opinion document from the members of the Supreme Court here.

Conscience Amid Law

The very nature of the Supreme Court forces the justices to apply their own opinions and beliefs into legal decisions, as cases would not have made it through lower courts if there weren't legal support on both sides of the debate. Roberts' experience with his own health and working in big business would have swayed his final decision, Rothstein says.

"Whatever he had decided on this, he would have had good health care," he says. "He was probably thinking about the millions of people who are less fortunate than he is."

The ACA is also an "ingenious" plan, Rothstein says, in how it draws the private sector in to provide federal government-mandated health care. This "socialist- capitalist" compromise will be a boon for private industry, and another reason why Roberts acted as "big business' friend."

Taking the Politics out of the Court

Roberts' decision also came from his desire to purify a court mired in political division, Rothstein says.

Justices Anatonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were appointed by conservatives (Ronald Reagan for the first two, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush for the last), while Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan got to the bench via liberals (Bill Clinton for the first two, Obama for the last).

And Roberts' role as the deciding vote was unexpected. Kennedy is usually known as the "swing vote" justice and most pundits anticipated the final ruling would come down to his vote.

"(Roberts) wanted to show that the Supreme Court is more responsible to legal principles than they are to partisan principles," says Rothstein. "He has eyes on his legacy."

Learn more about the nuances of Roberts' ruling in the full audio interview at right.

WTOP's Paul D. Shinkman contributed to this report. Follow Paul and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)