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Health Care Decision Was Supreme Guessing Game

June 28, 2012

In a city that thrives on leaks, the Supreme Court is all but watertight. The nine justices have known the likely outcome of the health-care case since March 30, when they sat in their private conference room and took a vote. Until today, they’ve told their law clerks and secretaries — and virtually no one else.

The rest of us have been guessing. And guessing. We’ve speculated about whether John Roberts wants to be known as the chief justice who struck down a president’s signature law. We’ve parsed Anthony Kennedy’s questions during the three-day argument session. We’ve wondered whether Antonin Scalia’s angry dissent in the Arizona immigration case might have been a prelude to a health-care dissent.

Guessing is part of the job for reporters who cover the court. Armed with the thinnest of evidence — often consisting of a justice’s ambiguous question, the pattern of decisions earlier in the term or an action the court took years earlier in a similar case — we guess as a way of preparing ourselves for what the court seems likely to do. Along the way, we place the occasional 38-cent wager with one another. We’re probably wrong as often as we’re right.

Health care was guessing on steroids. Rumors that the ruling was imminent surfaced seemingly every day the court was scheduled to release opinions — and at least one day it wasn’t. Theories flew about possible outcomes. (Might they strike down the insurance mandate while upholding the fines? Order re-argument next term?) No topic was too small to debate. And with each passing day, the crowd of reporters in the court’s pressroom grew in anticipation of a ruling for the ages.

The secrecy ensured that today’s announcement was a rare moment of genuine Washington drama, an instant in which the justices finally told us the news we’ve all been waiting to hear.

Greg Stohr covers the Supreme Court for Bloomberg News. Follow him on Twitter @GregStohr.