WASHINGTON – A narrowly divided Supreme Court upheld President Obama's health care law Thursday in a complex opinion that gives the president a major election-year victory.
The historic 5-4 decision will affect the way Americans receive and pay for their personal medical care in the future. It upholds the individual mandate that most Americans get health insurance or pay a penalty — and it was the penalty, or tax, that ultimately saved the law.
Chief Justice John Roberts announced the decision that allows the law to go forward with its aim of covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans. He argued that the mandate is constitutional only because the penalty "functions like a tax" and is therefore allowed under Congress' taxing power.
"Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness," Roberts wrote.
The court's four liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, joined Roberts in the majority vote. They argued for a more sweeping approval based on the commerce clause, but the end result was the same.
Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy,Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Kennedy, who was thought to be the most likely swing vote, delivered a scathing denunciation from the bench.
"The majority rewrites the statute Congress wrote. … What Congress called a penalty, the court calls a tax," Kennedy said. "The Affordable Care Act now must operate as the court has revised it, not as Congress designed it."
President Obama, speaking from the White House after the decision, said, "Whatever the politics, today was a victory for people all over this country whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Court's decision to uphold it.
"It should be pretty clear by now that I didn't do this because it's good politics," Obama said. "I did it because I believed it was good for the country."
Roberts — a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush— provided the key vote to preserve the landmark health care law, which figures to be a major issue in Obama's re-election bid against Republican opponent Mitt Romney.