By Jesse Holland
WASHINGTON — An audible exhalation rippled through the courtroom Thursday when Chief Justice John Roberts revealed the Supreme Court would uphold the requirement in President Obama's health care overhaul that nearly every American have insurance.
Unlike outside — where media outlets quickly conveyed the court's decision to an eagerly awaiting crowd — onlookers inside the marble courtroom had to wait long, tension-filled minutes for a solemn Roberts to carefully read his opinion before it became clear the law had been upheld. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., whose performance arguing the government's case in March has been criticized, sat quietly showing no emotion at the front of the courtroom as Roberts read on, and when the chief justice finished explaining that the court would uphold the mandate, the approximately 400 spectators seemed to breathe at once.
Brendan Riley of Washington stood in line from daybreak on his 23d birthday to get inside to hear the decision. First, Riley said he was disheartened, even devastated, when Roberts began to speak and it appeared the mandate would be struck down, but his mood changed minutes later when Roberts pivoted and explained the mandate would be upheld under the Congress's power to tax.
''It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride,'' said Riley, who works for a consumer advocacy group.
Riley's mood was not matched by Justice Anthony Kennedy, long expected to be the swing vote upon which the case would turn. Instead, Kennedy ended up on the losing side and sometimes appeared angry while reading his dissent, which called the majority's work a ''vast judicial overreaching.''
Outside the Supreme Court, there was the usual chaos that follows important arguments and decisions at the high court: bellydancers in red-and-blue shimmying on to a drummer's beat, a man posing in Colonial American garb with a tri-cornered hat, and dueling protesters, some chanting ''Hey, hey, ho, ho, Obamacare has got to go,'' and others ''We love Obamacare.'' But when the decision was revealed, there was confused cheering and booing, with the law's opponents first cheering because of rumors that the mandate had been struck down, and then turning angry when they discovered it had survived.
Karen Higgins, a nurse at Boston Medical Center's intensive care unit, took an early flight to join Washington area nurses to weigh in. "It was important for me to be here," said Higgins, a copresident of National Nurses United.
"No matter what the justices do, it will open the door for more discussion in this country."
Globe staff reporter Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.