Spin Cycle

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Now the question becomes whether "Roberts-care" overtakes "Obamacare" as the nickname of choice for this Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Odds are against it -- even if a good case could be made in favor.

Too much has been already invested in calling it "Obamacare" -- starting with the program's critics, spreading to the news media, and most recently, including President Barack Obama himself, who said in March: "You want to call it Obamacare, that's OK, because I do care."

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But it was Chief Judge John Roberts who -- for the time being, anyway -- saved the crux of the intricate, insurance-industry-backed law. He wrote that Congress indeed had the power to impose penalties on those of us who fail to buy medical insurance if they can afford it.

The Republican Roberts' ad hoc alliance with the court's Democratic appointees spawned a landmark 5-4 ruling. Jaws dropped in Washington as if House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) just strode across the aisle and cast the deciding vote for a big Democratically sponsored bill opposed by his GOP caucus.

Of course, Roberts here doesn't risk replacement by colleagues as a legislative leader would. And since the nation's top court, like any other, is supposed to rule honestly on matters of law, case by case, many would take the man at his word that he did just that.

But the unusual, stunning ruling instantly prompted loose speculation about what influenced his thinking.

Two months ago, as the health care case was coming up, Obama issued what sounded like a Chicago-style warning: "I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."

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In fact, the Roberts court's majority opinion states: "Our permissive reading of these [congressional] powers is explained in part by a general reticence to invalidate the acts of the Nation's elected leaders."

Some commentators, meanwhile, were leaping to brand Roberts as the new Earl Warren -- a conservative justice who went liberal once appointed to the lifelong term. Others who combed this decision, however, saw precedent-setting language useful to libertarian and conservative causes in future cases.

New York's former chief judge, Sol Wachtler, believes Roberts had two goals. One was ensuring "posterity" by writing the majority opinion in what amounted to a huge case. The other, Wachtler says, had to do with "preserving the integrity of the court" -- by basing this decision not on an expanded federal power to regulate commerce, but by turning and jamming it into the framework of a "tax."

Another New York courthouse veteran, who declined to be identified, saw the prestige of the nation's high court as "on the line" after its 2000 decision for George W. Bush on the famous Florida recount. Being or looking too partisan can undermine the institution.

Whatever closed-door process led to its preservation, the nation's 2-year-old health coverage law earns, for the moment, the term "Roberts-care" -- regardless of who else claims credit or merits blame.