US top court unlikely to delay health care ruling

Wednesday, March 28, 2012
By Joan Biskupic and James Vicini, Reuters

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.

“Here, they did not use that word tax,” liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said, referring both to lawmakers who crafted the legislation in Congress and to their intent.

Another liberal Democratic appointee to the high court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also expressed skepticism. “This is not a revenue-raising measure because, if it's successful, nobody will pay the penalty and there will be no revenue to raise.”

Conservative Antonin Scalia was also among those justices who suggested by his questions that allowing the case to go forward would not broadly undercut federal tax policy.

'No parade of horribles'

“There will be no parade of horribles,” Scalia said, noting that lower court judges would be able to determine when to make exceptions to the usual rules governing general tax penalties and law.

Chief Justice John Roberts, the leader of the conservative majority, observed that the court's past cases cut in both directions and that it was unclear that the case could not go forward.

The law, intended to transform health care for millions of people in the United States, has generated fierce political debate. Republican opponents of the law say it will financially burden states, businesses and individuals.

The law has been viewed as the crowning achievement of Obama's domestic legislative agenda, but challengers say Congress exceeded its constitutional power to regulate commerce with the individual mandate.

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