Until now, perhaps. The umpire took center stage Thursday as the Republican chief justice who upheld President Obama’s health-care law, delighting liberals who have long despised him and enraging conservatives who considered him one of their own.
The decision stunned legal observers on both sides and made Roberts the focus of heated invective from conservative activists and some Republican members of Congress, who derided him as a “traitor.”
But many of those familiar with Roberts’s thinking say the calibrated decision is fully in keeping with the outlook of a studious Catholic schoolboy who made his way to be first in his class at Harvard University — conservative in his views but also reverent toward institutions.
“It underscores that the chief basically does what he thinks is the right interpretation of the law and not what is necessarily popular or needed to curry favor,” said Richard Lazarus, a Harvard law professor who is close to Roberts. “He takes on both sides and steers his own path here and also steers a path for the court. He is very much in control.”
Roberts is nothing if not self-confident, according to many who have known him over the years, a personable and meticulous persuader who spent much of his career in the heights of the Washington political and legal establishment. By providing the pivotal vote in approving “Obamacare,” he did what many considered impossible — and exhibited a command of the court that has eluded many of his predecessors.
Roberts may have sided with liberals to save the signature domestic achievement of Obama’s presidency, but he also gave conservatives important legal beachheads that could pay off down the road. He abandoned his perch as one of the court’s consistent conservatives to play peacemaker between liberals ready to uphold the law in full and conservatives who wanted to pull the plug.
And he did it all without the help of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who most often plays the tie-
breaker role that Roberts assumed Thursday.
“There’s no question this was a moment of truth for John Roberts,” said Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor and Supreme Court expert at George Washington University. “He had to decide what kind of court he wanted to preside over.”
Roberts’s controlling opinion contained two main facets. He sided with conservatives in finding that the government could not, under the Constitution’s commerce cause, require most Americans to buy insurance. And he placed limits on what the government could demand of states in expanding Medicaid coverage.
But on a crucial point, Roberts sided with the court’s liberal wing in finding that the insurance mandate is constitutional as a tax.
“If you told people that there were four solid votes to strike down the whole thing, I think most people . . . would have been surprised to find that among the four would have been Justice Kennedy and not Chief Justice Roberts,” said Paul Clement, who represented a group of 26 states that challenged the health-care law.