Supreme Court’s health care decision will draw scrutiny

Robert Barnes / The Washington Post /

Published Jun 27, 2012 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — Calculating who will write the final decision of the Supreme Court’s term is a game that usually interests only a small band of lawyers, professors, reporters and politicos who obsess over the justices’ every footnote.

But this year, the likelihood that Chief Justice John Roberts is preparing the court’s judgment on President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul is worthy of headlines and a whirl of Internet spin.

Roberts’ questions at oral arguments are being consulted, his decisions in past cases are being reviewed, and the analysis is under way about whether his presence in the majority means he is preparing a life preserver or a stake for the Affordable Care Act.

The first Monday in October and the last week of June, the bookends for each session, are always moments in the spotlight for the Supreme Court. But this is no ordinary time.

The court has rarely occupied so prominent a place in the public consciousness as now: deciding the constitutionality of a health care plan that would touch every American, ruling on the president’s bitterly fought signature domestic achievement, issuing an opinion that will immediately affect election-year politics.

“More people have paid attention to this case than any other case in recent memory, probably with the exception of Bush vs. Gore,” Paul Clement, who argued the case on behalf of the law’s challengers, told reporters last week.

But that decision, which decided the 2000 presidential election, was an anomaly, an emergency that no doubt sealed the court’s reputation for many but was unlike its usual practice of briefing and argument and contemplation and opinion-writing.

Health care, Clement said, “is a case where everybody from ordinary citizens to reporters who are not used to covering the court are getting an education in how the court works.”

The main way it works, of course, is in secrecy, beyond public view and in a place unlike much of official Washington.

Television cameras are not allowed. The lucky spectators admitted to the courtroom are told to check their BlackBerrys at the door. Reporters are discouraged from using noisy cellphones, even in the press room.

Unlike many other institutions in this city, the court sticks to a sharp timetable, and the decision will be delivered Thursday morning, shortly after 10 a.m. The health-care case was probably decided soon after the court’s historic three days of hearings in March. But even now, only a few dozen court employees — half of whom are probably unhappy with the decision — know the outcome.

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