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Why Roberts saved Obama's law

WASHINGTON -- In the end, it all came down to Chief Justice John Roberts, the sphinx in the center chair, who in a stunning decision wove together competing rationales to uphold U.S. President Barack Obama's health care plan.

Roberts' action instantly upended the conventional wisdom that he would vote with his four fellow conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court and undercut the agenda of a Democratic president, who as a senator in 2005 had opposed Roberts' appointment to the bench.

But Thursday's extraordinary conclusion to the bitterly fought health care battle was quite ordinary in some ways. Roberts hewed to a traditional Supreme Court principle that if the justices can find any constitutional grounds on which to uphold a law, they should do so. The 57-year-old chief justice also followed a stated principle of his own: narrowly deciding cases and trying to preserve the integrity of the judiciary in polarized Washington.

While he has voted consistently with the conservative bloc on social issues, such as abortion rights and racial policies, Roberts in his public remarks has suggested that he seeks, as chief, to transcend an ideological label. He routinely refers to the court's place in history and has bristled at polls and public commentary that suggest the high court acts in the same political realm as the two elected branches of government.

Indeed, in his comments during oral arguments in the health care case, Roberts hinted that he could be open to siding with the government. He expressed concern that the court over which he presides might be seen as ignoring more than 75 years of precedent and rolling back U.S. law to the New Deal era. The last time the Supreme Court struck down a major act of Congress was in 1936, when the court invalidated a federal law that limited work hours and prescribed minimum wages for coal workers.

“He is positioning the court as the one, competent, principled institution in Washington,” said Pamela Karlan, a Stanford University law professor. “The chief justice's opinion is designed to appear thoughtful, measured. He is in this for the long haul.”

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