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Harvard law professors, students, cheer Supreme Court decision on health care act

Harvard Law

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Robert Greenwald, managing director of the Center for Health Law at Harvard Law School, students, and staff reacted to the early news of the Supreme Court decision.

At Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation clinic in Jamaica Plain, more than a dozen law students and staff gathered around a conference table Thursday morning, laptops open, eyes glued to a blog with moment-to-moment updates on the pending Supreme Court decision.

Robert Greenwald, the director of the center, tapped a rapid beat with his feet.

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“I’m having trouble breathing,” he declared, as the minutes ticked by.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, hundreds of thousands of people waited anxiously for the release of the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act.

Among them: students and staff of Harvard Law School, many of whom are involved in health care public policy.

In Cambridge, Einer Elhauge, a law professor and founding director of the ­Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, logged onto his computer in his Harvard Law School office.

In Dallas, third-year law student Joel Alicea, president of the Harvard Federalist Society, was ready for the decision, one Internet browser window open to SCOTUSblog, and another to an online chat where he and other Harvard Law students could trade thoughts on the decision.

“I made sure I came in early to work so I could set up to wait for it,” Alicea said.

The Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, a clinic out of Harvard Law School, works to help vulnerable populations around the country, especially low-income people with chronic disease, obtain access to health care, so the students and professors there had a particular interest in the ruling.

As they waited, some of the students took bets on how many justices would compose the majority decision. One woman suggested some pre-ruling yoga to relieve the tension of the moment.

Then, at 10:07 a.m., ­SCOTUSblog reported: “We have health care opinion.”

At the conference table, there was a flurry of oh-my-Gods. Then, a hush.

Four hundred fifty miles away, SCOTUSBlog writers — several of them Harvard Law alumni or faculty — skimmed furiously through the document.

At 10:08 a.m., a new message appeared on their screens: “The individual mandate survives as a tax.”

The room erupted. Some cried “Yes!” and pumped their fists in the air.

But the wait was not over. The staff and students knew there was more to the decision.

At 10:09 a.m.: “It’s very complicated, so we’re still figuring it out,” the blog read.

“It’s very complicated? What does that mean?” cried one woman, talking to her computer screen as if expecting a response.

Then, at 10:10 a.m., another message. Everyone read aloud simultaneously: “So the mandate is constitutional. Chief Justice Roberts joins the left of the Court.”

Gasps. More applause. Some, like Faina Shalts, a fellow at the clinic, cheered “Yay, Roberts!” They gave one another high-fives.

“We are so incredibly excited — I was about to cry,” said Emily Broad-Leib, associate director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. “We’re in the midst of a time that’s really polarized. I’m just so excited to see the court be able to come together and get beyond the politics of it.”

Greenwald said he was disappointed about the court’s decision on Medicaid expansion, which prevents the federal government from decreasing funding to states that choose not to expand their Medicaid programs.

But largely, he said, he was satisfied with the decision.

“As a lawyer, this gives me a renewed faith,” Greenwald said, speaking about Roberts’s decision to rule in favor of upholding the health care act. “To see that it wasn’t clearly around political ideology — it’s a great thing to see.”

Elhauge, the professor watching the proceedings from his office at Harvard Law School, was more stoic in his take on Roberts’s surprise crossover.

“Although Roberts is further to the right than [Justice Anthony] Kennedy, he has the most economic sophistication,” Elhauge said. “Of the conservative justices, he’s the most likely to follow this more economically functional approach.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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