Conservative top justice cast vote to save 'Obamacare'

Abner Greene in AFP, June 29, 2012

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WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, a champion of conservative causes, stunned the US political establishment by casting the deciding vote to uphold President Barack Obama's health reforms.

With Thursday's landmark ruling, observers are taking a new look at Roberts, 57, long seen as a bedrock conservative who in seven years on the court has cast decisive votes favoring social conservatives and business interests.

"It is momentous that the conservative chief justice provided the critical vote and wrote the decision saving the administration's most vital achievement," said Tom Goldstein, a longtime Supreme Court expert.

It was Roberts's sometimes skeptical interrogation of government attorneys that led observers to predict he would vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act, seen as the greatest domestic achievement of Obama's presidency.

Roberts' votes on the nine-member panel have aligned with those of the two most conservative justices -- Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- including on the controversial 2010 Citizens' United ruling, which lifted restrictions on campaign spending by corporations.

But the top justice on the Supreme Court has added a quizzical new entry to his biography in voting with the court's liberal stalwarts to uphold Obama's Affordable Care Act, deemed "Obamacare" by its conservative detractors.

Graham Wilson, chair of the political science department at Boston University, said Roberts had "turned the issue back to the arena of democratic politics" by upholding the law narrowly passed by Congress.

"This is John Roberts's attempt at avoiding the damning critique of history," said Abner Greene, a professor at Fordham University School of Law.

At the time he was nominated to the Supreme Court, Roberts was hailed as one of the best legal minds of his generation.

Then-president George W. Bush picked Roberts to head the top court at the relatively young age of 50 after the death of its veteran chief justice and conservative icon, William Rehnquist.

His tenure has been marked by a shift in the court's balance as Bush picked another renowned conservative jurist, Samuel Alito, to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, who was considered a swing vote, after she retired in 2006.

Roberts's nomination sounded alarm bells among liberal groups fearing that a more conservative court would restrict abortion rights.

Since his confirmation in 2005, the Roberts court has handed social conservatives several victories, including dealing a blow to pro-choice interests by upholding a ban on a late-term abortions.

He also has provoked outrage from Democrats and civil rights campaigners. In 2007 Roberts led another 5-4 majority in ruling that school authorities do not have free rein to balance the racial mix of their student populations.

Born in Buffalo, New York on January 27, 1955, Roberts was raised in Indiana and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979.

In 1980-1981 he was a clerk for Rehnquist and in 1982 he was brought into president Ronald Reagan's administration, where he served as a special assistant to the attorney general and later the associate counsel to Reagan.

He also served briefly in the George H. W. Bush administration where, in 1992, he signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

Roberts returned to private practice in the 1990s, where he gained renown for his intellectual prowess, arguing close to 40 cases before the Supreme Court.

He served as an adviser to George W. Bush's campaign as it prepared its case before the Supreme Court to halt the Florida presidential vote recount in 2000. Three years later, Bush appointed him to the US Court of Appeals in Washington.

Roberts married Jane Mary Sullivan when they were in their 40s. They have adopted two children, Josephine and John.