WASHINGTON (AP) — An audible exhalation rippled through the courtroom Thursday when Chief Justice John Roberts revealed the Supreme Court would uphold the requirement in President Barack Obama's health care overhaul that nearly every American have insurance.
Unlike outside — where media outlets quickly conveyed the court's decision to an eagerly awaiting crowd — onlookers inside the marble courtroom had to wait long, tension-filled minutes for a solemn Roberts to carefully read his opinion before it became clear the law had been upheld. 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, and when the chief justice finished explaining that the court would uphold the mandate, the approximately 400 spectators seemed to breathe at once.
Brendan Riley of Washington, D.C. 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 mandate would be struck down, but his mood changed minutes later when Roberts pivoted and explained 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."
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg got chuckles when she brought up a broccoli analogy used during the arguments. 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 healthcare, 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 Washington and the United States 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 Supreme Court, there was the usual chaos that follows important arguments and decisions at the high court: bellydancers in red-and-blue shimmying on 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," and others "We love Obamacare." But when the decision was revealed, there was confused cheering and booing, with the law's opponents first cheering because of rumors that the mandate had been struck down, and then turning angry when they discovered it had survived.
Karri Workman of Phoenix, Ariz., 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 reporters Jessica Gresko and Sarah Parnass contributed to this story.