By Joan Biskupic
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who cast the decisive vote in 2012 to beat back the first major challenge to President Barack Obama's healthcare law, kept his cards close on Wednesday.
And the man who occupies the center chair on the Supreme Court’s mahogany bench and often dominates arguments seemed to remain deliberately inscrutable.
Roberts asked few questions, none revealing his view of the challenge to the crucial tax-credit subsidies that help low- and moderate-income people buy insurance under the 2010 law. His first question came late in the arguments of the challengers' lawyer and was, in fact, more of a joke.
As liberal justices pounded Michael Carvin for altering his stance on the necessity of the tax-credit subsidies to Obamacare from his view in the failed 2012 court challenge, Roberts remarked, "Mr. Carvin, we've heard talk about that other case. Did you win that other case?"
As spectators began to laugh, Roberts said, "So maybe it makes sense that you have a different story today."
Carvin, at the time representing a small-business group, lost when Roberts joined the court's four liberals to uphold Obamacare.
On Wednesday, Carvin argued on behalf of Virginians enlisted as plaintiffs by a libertarian group opposed to Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.
In 2012, Roberts, a shrewd 60-year-old former corporate lawyer appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, drew the condemnation of fellow conservative justices and much of the right-wing legal community for preserving Obamacare.
Roberts never responded publicly to conservatives' claims he was a traitor or to liberals' praise of him as a savior. His few words on Wednesday suggested he knows he is being watched as the possible pivotal vote again.
One clue to Roberts’ thinking might have emerged near the end of the 85-minute oral argument when U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said the court regularly defers to Internal Revenue Service interpretation of tax laws.
Here, the IRS has said the tax-credit subsidies should be given to people who buy insurance on federally run as well as state exchanges.
"If you’re right," Roberts said, "that would indicate that a subsequent administration could change that interpretation."
Verrilli said the next administration would "need a very strong case" to make a switch.
Roberts may be suggesting he is open to ruling for the government while ensuring Obama's successor in the White House an opportunity to reinterpret the law.
His fellow justices will get the first glimpse of Roberts' views on Friday when they privately take their customary preliminary vote on the week's cases. The vote always starts with him.
(Editing by Will Dunham)