ATLANTA — An Atlanta federal courtroom will soon become the latest battlefield in the ongoing fight over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments Wednesday on whether to reverse a Florida judge's ruling that struck down vast portions of the law.
A cast of all-star attorneys who represent 26 states challenging the law will face off against the might of the Justice Department, which claims the legislative branch had the authority to enact the wide-ranging changes.
"The ruling, the nature of the parties, I'd like to think the quality of the advocates, makes it a very important argument," said Greg Katsas, who will help represent the National Federation of Independent Business during oral arguments. The NFIB opposes the law.
Former U.S. Solicitor Paul Clement represents the challenging states and Acting U.S. Solicitor Neal Katyal will speak for the government.
Two similar lawsuits are pending in Virginia. Three federal judges have upheld the law and two have invalidated it.
U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson's ruling went the furthest. It not only struck down a requirement that nearly all Americans carry health insurance, but it also threw out other provisions ranging from Medicare discounts for some seniors to a change that allows adult children up to age 26 to remain on their parents' coverage.
Now the randomly-selected three-judge panel will hear the case. Chief Judge Joel Dubina, who was tapped by President George H.W. Bush and Circuit Judges Frank Hull and Stanley Marcus, who are both President Bill Clinton's appointees, are handling the review.
While none of the three are considered reflexively ideological, court observers say the challengers likely face an uphill battle.
"My best sense of conventional legal understanding is that this challenge starts with a high hurdle to clear," said Greg Magarian, a Washington University law professor who specializes in constitutional law.
"I think the states start, for better or worse, with the wind very much in their face. I would certainly agree that two Clinton appointees and a well-respected George H.W. Bush appointee, all seen as straight shooters, is not optimal for the states."
The 11th Circuit is preparing for crowds. The court is expecting a crush of people for the arguments, and is opening an adjoining courtroom for the spillover crowd. It also plans to sell $26 audiotapes of the arguments to those who want recordings of the court sessions.
A torrent of briefs and court filings from supporters and opponents has flooded in from outside parties seeking to influence the case. Aaron Smith, executive director of a youth advocacy group, the Young Invincibles, submitted a brief urging the court to reverse the Florida judge's ruling.
"It's important to just to emphasize the point of how crucial this law is to real people," he said. "This is not an abstract debate – it would impact the lives of millions of young people."
Attorneys from both sides, meanwhile, have been preparing for weeks to make their cases. Katsas said his team plans to hit on a few main points.
"Congress has never in history before tried to use its commerce power to force American consumers to buy goods and services that they don't want," he said. He added that the government's theory allows lawmakers to set up a "command and control economy where the government tells people what they have to buy and sell."
Lawyers on both sides have said the cases ultimately will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the appeal panel's decision could help shape the debate.
"Everyone knows what the stakes are," said Magarian.