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Obama Health Care Law Reaches Supreme Court, With Over Five Hours Of Oral Argument Planned

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WASHINGTON -- In an order released on Monday morning, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear more than five hours of oral argument in the challenges to the Affordable Care Act brought by 26 states and several private parties.

The order indicates the gravity with which the justices view the health care cases, as the Court rarely allots more than an hour to for argument in each case it hears.

Within those five-plus hours, the justices divided the time into four separate arguments to address the various questions raised in petitions from the Department of Justice, the 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business.

The longest argument, set for two hours, will consider whether Congress had the power under Article 1 of the Constitution to enact the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Article 1 outlines the types of laws Congress may pass, such as those that regulate interstate commerce. The Justice Department has argued in the lower courts and in its petition to the Supreme Court that the health care law's "individual mandate," which requires virtually all Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty on their tax returns, falls within Congress' power under the commerce clause of Article 1.

The cases granted Monday come up from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which struck down the individual mandate by a 2-1 vote, holding that the provision exceeds the scope of the commerce clause.

Majorities on the 6th Circuit and the D.C. Circuit have disagreed, siding with the Obama administration that the law falls within the clause's broad boundaries as articulated by the Supreme Court over the past seven decades.

The justices will also hear 90 minutes of oral argument on whether the entire health care law must fall should they find that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. The 11th Circuit found the mandate could be severed from the rest of the law and therefore refused to throw out the whole law. That ruling reversed Judge Roger Vinson's decision at the district court level that the mandate was not severable. The National Federation of Independent Business urged the Court to reinstate Vinson's decision, which remains the only one in the country to strike down the health care law in its entirety.

The justices will hear an hour of oral argument on whether they should avoid ruling on the merits at all because the individual mandate does not go into effect until 2014. Specifically, the justices will be asked to determine if the penalty that must be paid under the mandate constitutes a tax, which would trigger a federal statute called the Anti-Injunction Act. That law requires individuals to have actually paid the taxes required by a law before they can challenge the law's constitutional merits in court. A 2-1 majority on the 4th Circuit, composed of Democrat-appointed judges, tossed a suit against the health care law on these grounds several months ago.

The Justice Department urged the Court to rule on the merits and downplayed the 4th Circuit's decision in its brief. But last week, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a prominent and influential conservative judge, dissented for that very reason from the D.C. Circuit's decision to uphold the mandate. Kavanaugh wrote that the penalty constituted a tax, which would bar the courts from considering the law's constitutionality until after the first penalties have been paid in 2015. That the justices asked for a full hour of argument on this issue after all parties petitioning the Court urged a ruling on the merits may signal that the Court is open to avoiding a politically charged constitutional decision during the heart of the 2012 campaign season.

The Court will hear one final hour on the constitutionality of Congress' pinning federal funding to the states on their participation in the law's health care reforms. No court has yet accepted the argument, put forward by the 26 states in this suit, that the health care law coerces and commandeers the states to act in violation of basic federalism principles.

Oral arguments will likely be scheduled for the third or fourth week of March, with a decision coming down at the end of June before the Court recesses for the summer.

Legal Battle Over Health Care Law
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