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Justice Kennedy Could Be Swing Vote In Obamacare

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNN) - The U-S Supreme Court is set to announce its decision Thursday in the much-awaited health care reform case.   As with most controversial issues, the justices are likely to split on the law's constitutionality.  
 
He's the man in the middle. The right-leaning justice who often swings left on some of the most- hot-button cases: the death penalty, abortion, immigration. Now the Sacramento native might be the one time magazine calls the "decider"-- whose vote in Thursday’s health care ruling could make all the difference:

In any nine member court that's closely divided someone's going to be in the middle and for us that's Justice Kennedy, who's a solid conservative. But he does vote with the left in a material number of cases and when it comes to health care there's every reason to think that he'll be right there in the center as well.

The 75-year-old Kennedy asked tough questions of both sides during the March oral arguments over the constitutionality of the affordable care act and the key funding provision. The so-called "individual mandate" would require most Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. The justice wondered whether congress went too far:

The government is saying that the Federal Government has a duty to tell the individual citizen that it must act, and that is different from what we have in previous cases and that changes the relationship of the Federal Government to the individual in the very fundamental way.

But some sympathy too for the Obama administration and the "unique" aspects of health care in the national economy, suggesting perhaps the health insurance market was special enough that he could vote to uphold the mandate.

This is a question about states' rights which he cares a lot about. It's a question about individual liberty and the relationship between the government and the American public which he cares a lot about. And so it would be quite surprising if he weren't in the majority in the end. We won't know on which of the questions the court's going to divide on 5 to 4. But if it does, then he's likely to be the pivotal vote.

Such influence makes Kennedy a target-- from the left and right. Critics say he lacks an over-arching judicial philosophy, and his case-by-case approach has earned him nicknames: flipper and the errant voyager. Kennedy comes from a family of lawyers. A federal judge for 37 years the last quarter century on the high court. Friends say he is a curious, civic-minded intellectual with a taste for Shakespeare and his beloved San Francisco Giants.
 
Another key player might be Chief Justice John Roberts, who also pressed both sides in the health care arguments.