Politics

Chief Justice John Roberts bargained with liberals over fate of Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, new book claims

Key Points
  • Chief Justice John Roberts traded with liberal justices over the fate of a key plank in President Barack Obama's signature health-care legislation while the matter was before the Supreme Court in 2012, according to an adaptation published on Thursday of a forthcoming Roberts biography.
  • It has long been reported that Roberts flipped his vote on the central element of the case, eventually siding with the liberals in a 5-4 vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate.
  • But according to Joan Biskupic, the author of "The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts," that's not the only flip-flop that happened at the time.
  • According to Biskupic, two of the court's liberals, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, flipped on Medicaid expansion, a separate legal issue concerning Obamacare.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, from left, stands with fellow justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Larry Downing | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Chief Justice John Roberts traded with liberal justices over the fate of a key plank in President Barack Obama's signature health-care legislation while the matter was before the Supreme Court in 2012, according to an adaptation published on Thursday of a forthcoming Roberts biography.

The legal battle over the Affordable Care Act was one of the most consequential disputes before the nation's top court since Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, took the helm in 2005.

It has long been reported that Roberts flipped his vote on the central element of the case, eventually siding with the liberals in a 5-4 vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate.

But according to Joan Biskupic, the author of "The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts," that's not the only flip-flop that happened at the time. According to Biskupic, two of the court's liberals, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, flipped on Medicaid expansion, a separate legal issue concerning Obamacare.

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, it required states to expand Medicaid coverage to those near the poverty line or risk losing federal funding.

According to Biskupic, Breyer and Kagan voted during the court's first conference on the matter, in March 2012, to uphold that requirement. But once Roberts signaled that he was going to switch his vote and uphold the individual mandate, the two justices were "were willing to meet him partway."

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Ultimately, Breyer and Kagan sided with the court's five conservatives in June 2012 to hold that the law's Medicaid expansion requirement was unconstitutional, leaving the decision up to the states. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

As of last month, 37 states have opted to expand Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The deliberation of the justices is generally a private matter and little is known about how the top court comes to its final decisions.

Roberts has painted the process as apolitical, however, and famously pledged during his nomination hearings to serve as an impartial "umpire" whose job it was to "call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat."

He has faced intense scrutiny from conservatives for his vote to preserve Obamacare. President Donald Trump, then a private citizen, wrote a post on Twitter at the time blasting Roberts for his vote.

"Wow, the Supreme Court passed ObamaCare," Trump wrote. "I guess Justice Roberts wanted to be a part of Georgetown society more than anyone knew."

None of the justices responded to a request for comment submitted through a Supreme Court spokesperson.