By Sam Baker - 05/14/12 09:39 PM EDT
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Monday said he believes Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts might vote to uphold President Obama's healthcare law.
Before the court heard oral arguments in the healthcare case, Roberts was mentioned frequently as a possible swing vote. His aggressive questioning during the three days of oral arguments seemed to quash most of that speculation, but Leahy said he remains hopeful.
"I thought I saw a chief justice who understands the importance of this case to all Americans, including those millions who would otherwise continue without health care insurance and access to affordable health care," Leahy said in a floor speech. "This case is also significant because of the impact it will have on the American people’s view of the Supreme Court."
The court is expected to decide next month whether the healthcare law's individual mandate, which requires almost everyone to buy insurance, is constitutional. If the court strikes down the mandate, it will also have to decide whether to throw out the entire law or leave the rest intact.
Supporters of the healthcare law saw Roberts as a possible ally largely because of statements he made during his confirmation hearings, where he cast the court as an "umpire" that would aim for narrow rulings and respect the prerogatives of Congress.
Leahy, who attended the oral arguments in March, said he was "struck by how little respect some of the justices showed to Congress, and of how dismissive they were" of the legislative process.
Several Democratic lawmakers were upset over the questioning from Justice Antonin Scalia, who brought up the messy process through which healthcare passed. Scalia referenced a controversial proposal, dubbed the "Cornhusker Kickback," that was cut from the bill before it passed.
But Leahy said he's not giving up on Roberts.
"The Chief Justice seemed to understand that deference to the elected branch is fundamental to the proper exercise of judicial review," Leahy said. "I was struck that more than once he commented on the extreme arguments coming from other Justices by noting they were not being fair. He was right."
During the oral arguments, Roberts aggressively pressed the Justice Department to define the limits of Congress's power. He suggested that if the government can make people buy health insurance, it could also compel the purchase of cell phones for use in an emergency.
But he also had tough questions for the lawyers opposing the Affordable Care Act, and at times pushed back against their characterizations of the government's position.