Like almost everyone across the political spectrum I was initially shocked that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was the decisive vote in upholding the constitutionality of the Obama administration's health care bill. After all, he had never before been part of a 5-4 decision in which he had joined the evolving liberal bloc of justices. Even Clarence Thomas had joined them twice and Anthony Kennedy twenty-five times.
Speculation was rife in the aftermath. Conservatives had taken for granted that the right wing majority would scuttle "Obamacare." When it didn't happen, they wanted Roberts' head for being a traitor, with some speculating he was suffering from a medical condition that clouded his judgment. There was no attempt to consider why he might have acted so out of character that didn't rely on some personal defect of body or soul.
Liberals, ever optimistic, first assumed, without any evidence the conservative majority acted this way, that overwhelming legal precedent should make the Court easily uphold the legislation. After oral arguments, however, liberal commentators went into major depression, because one conservative justice after another pilloried the lawyer whose job it was to argue the case for the Obama team. Justice Kennedy, the great hope, seemed particularly dismissive of the constitutional basis for the controversial "individual mandate" to buy insurance or be penalized.
Roberts' apparent eleventh hour change of heart, abandonment of his conservative brethren, was stupefying to liberals as well, since his legal arguments seemed the by-product of his decision to uphold the law rather than source of it. Liberals speculated that perhaps Roberts had a desire to demonstrate the Court was not simply a politcally-motivated institution, which polls showed Americans had largely come to believe. From this perspective, Roberts, as Chief justice, would not want his Court to be saddled with such a legacy.
I never viewed the Court as anything but political. I perceived legal precedents as the necessary citations when Justices acted in behalf or their desired political ends. Nominees have always been vetted for their politcal reliability before any other considerations such as gender, age, race or ethnicity came into play. Moreover, they surely knew this and there is no reason to think a deeply conservative Justice would worry about how his political enemies would evaluate his career.
It is possible he might have some concern about public opinion regarding the image of the Court as an apolitical arbiter of constitutionality, but ever since Gore v. Bush the cat was totally out of the bag on that myth. If Roberts was so worried about image he would have joined the liberals on Citizens United, a gift to corporations wishing to freely use their wealth to buy elections,and a decision far more unpopular than Bush v. Gore. Polls taken in it's aftermath showed 80 percent disapproval.
But, if legal precedent and a primary desire to defend the Roberts Court from history's rebuke, weren't his motivations, and being a traitor or suffering from a mentally- disorder wasn't the explanation, what might have accounted for Roberts' turnabout?
I think a better approach to understanding Roberts' apparent apostasy is to think of his vote in political terms in the narrowest sense, namely, did he want the bill to pass on its merits based on his conservative ideology.
If one looks at the origins of the Obama bill its conservative roots are apparent. It's essence, the individual mandate, emerged from conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, was embraced by Republicans in Congress in the 1990s and, as we know, put into law in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney when he was Governor. It was a vehicle for fixing a broken health care system, while insuring a continuing primary role for large health care-oriented corporations. It was the best possible alternative to a single-payer system if one wanted to avoid that approach.
It wasn't Roberts' fault that the pragmatic corporate conservatives who were dominant in the Republican Party had been overthrown by even more right-wing ones and that a policy with conservative origins was now seen as Socialism or even Communism.
So, perhaps Roberts simply felt that the Obama bill was something he would have generally supported had it been proposed by a Republican president and passed by a Republican congress and, since he wasn't running for office as a Republican, there was no reason for him to reject it as today's Republican candidates have had to do with the bill and other policies, such as cap and trade, which their predecessors invented.
That future historians might view him as a moderate because of this, or the public be less likely to see him as someone who presided over a completely politicized Court, is an unintended consequence, not the motive for his behavior.
As for Roberts' future votes on the Court, I see no reason to imagine him siding with his health care bill allies when the issues change, particularly on the extension of the Voting Rights Act which allows the federal government to monitor the political "rules" in states with long histories of racial discrimination or the maintenance of affirmative action. In these cases, conservative ideology has never wavered and I doubt he will.