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US top court unlikely to delay health care ruling

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday appeared prepared to decide the fate of President Barack Obama's sweeping health care law soon, rather than delaying for years a ruling on the mandate that Americans buy insurance or pay a penalty.

In the first of three days of historic arguments, the justices voiced doubt that a U.S. tax law requiring that people pay first and litigate later should postpone a ruling on the legal challenge to the president's signature domestic legislative achievement.

At the core of the health care law, signed by Obama in 2010, is a requirement that people obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. The question on Monday was whether people can challenge this so-called individual mandate before paying the penalty and seeking a refund.

The Obama administration and the challengers — including 26 of the 50 states — agreed that the case should be decided now. One of the four U.S. appeals courts that ruled on the law prior to the case going to the high court held that the tax law barred the challenges until the penalty was paid. The justices then appointed an outside private lawyer to argue that position.

The nine justices, five appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democratic presidents, plan to hear up to six hours of arguments over three days. They are expected to rule on the case by late June.

The law was passed by Congress when both the Senate and House of Representatives were controlled by Obama's fellow Democrats. The court's consideration of the fate of the law presents high stakes for Obama as he campaigns for re-election on Nov. 6.

U.S. conservatives revile the law, denouncing it as unwarranted government intrusion into the lives of Americans, and the Republican candidates battling to become their party's nominee to challenge Obama have promised to try to repeal it.

In Monday's arguments lasting 89 minutes, justices across the ideological spectrum asked skeptical questions about whether the penalty was indeed a tax. If not deemed a tax, then the justices can move forward to decide the merits of whether the law is constitutional.

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