WASHINGTON (AP) – For a few tension-filled minutes, both opponents and supporters of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul thought Chief Justice John Roberts had given them victory.
Unlike outside, where media outlets quickly conveyed the court’s decision to an eagerly awaiting nation, onlookers inside the marble courtroom waited in intense, somber silence Thursday as a solemn Roberts carefully read the court’s majority opinion.
“You could hear a pin drop in there after those guys sat down. The whole hour,” said Floyd Maxwell Jr., 67, of Anza, Calif., one of the lucky onlookers who made it inside the courtroom for the readings.
But Roberts didn’t make clear immediately which side had won, and there was a stirring in the crowd as everyone waited for the magic words, onlookers said. Both sides “could smell a victory coming,” said James Christophersen, the Judicial Action Group executive director who was watching from inside the courtroom.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., whose performance arguing the government’s case in March has been criticized, sat quietly showing no emotion at the front of the courtroom as Roberts read on. When the chief justice finished explaining that the court would uphold the individual insurance requirement, the approximately 400 spectators seemed to breathe at once.
“There were a few noticeable starts of surprise from the crowd,” Christophersen said.
There were emotional ups-and-downs for those inside the room, said Brendan Riley of Washington, who stood in line from daybreak on his 23rd birthday to get inside to hear the decision.
First, Riley said he was disheartened, even devastated, when Roberts began to speak and it appeared the insurance mandate would be struck down, but his mood changed minutes later when Roberts explained that the mandate would be upheld under the Congress’ power to tax.
“It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride,” said Riley, who works for a consumer advocacy group.
Riley’s mood was not matched by Justice Anthony Kennedy, long expected to be the swing vote upon which the case would turn. Instead, Kennedy ended up on the losing side and sometimes appeared angry while reading his dissent, which called the majority’s work a “vast judicial overreaching.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg got chuckles when she brought up a broccoli analogy that had been used during the oral arguments in the case. Justice Antonin Scalia said during the March arguments that the government’s position would allow it to force people to buy the vegetable.
“If the government can compel people to buy insurance, then there is no commodity the government can’t force people to purchase, so the argument goes. But health care is not like vegetables or other items one is at liberty to buy or not buy,” Ginsburg said. “All of us will need health care, some sooner, some later, but we can’t tell when, where or how dire our need will be.”
A rare, quick round of applause rang out in the courtroom from the crowd after Roberts finally called the end of the term by congratulating a court employee on his long government service, saying the justices expected to see him back the first Monday in October at the “same time, same place.”
The health care decision brought people from all over the country to the Supreme Court, including retired Justice John Paul Stevens and the spouses of Roberts and Kennedy, as well as those of Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.
Outside the court, there was the usual chaos that follows important arguments and decisions: belly dancers in red-and-blue shimmying to a drummer’s beat; a man posing in colonial American garb with a tri-cornered hat; and dueling protesters, some chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Obamacare has got to go.” Others changed “We love Obamacare.”
But when the decision was revealed, there was confused cheering and booing, with the law’s opponents first cheering because of reports that the individual mandate had been struck down, and then turning angry when they discovered it had survived.
Karri Workman of Phoenix brought her three children to the sidewalk outside the court to see the scene.
“It’s incredible for them to see … peaceful protests,” she said.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko and Sarah Parnass contributed to this report.
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