WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Friday afternoon submitted its opening brief to the Supreme Court defending the constitutionality of the law that virtually all Americans purchase health insurance starting in 2014.
The brief argues that the minimum coverage provision under the Affordable Care Act, commonly called the "individual mandate," falls within Congress' constitutional powers to regulate interstate commerce and to lay and collect taxes.
The justices are scheduled to hear five-plus hours of oral argument in the battle over President Barack Obama's signature health care legislation in March. The battle over the individual mandate began almost immediately after the Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010, and much of the argument in the Obama administration's brief has already coursed through the lower courts with mixed success.
The specific case now before the Supreme Court, Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, comes up from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which rejected the administration's commerce and taxing clause arguments and struck down the mandate as unconstitutional.
The brief first argues that the individual mandate is well within Congress' power to regulate conduct that substantially affects interstate commerce, pointing to "the way in which individuals finance their participation in the health care market." The mandate "is classic economic regulation of economic conduct," the brief says.
Opponents of the mandate have not denied its national character, instead arguing that the federal government cannot force a person to engage in the health care market by purchasing its products. But Friday's brief countered that contention, as the government has in several courts of appeals below, by stating that a person's participation in the health care market, insurance or not, is inevitable.
The brief points to recent developments with one of the plaintiffs, Mary Brown, who believed she could pay her insurance bills out of pocket. "That belief proved incorrect," the brief states, noting that "Ms. Brown and her husband recently filed a petition for bankruptcy, and they list among their liabilities thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills, including bills from out-of-state providers."
"Those liabilities are uncompensated care that will ultimately be paid for by other market participants," wrote the administration. In essence, the brief pits the realities of the health care market against the abstract notions of personal liberty advanced by the mandate's challengers.
The brief also jabs at opponents beyond its adversaries in court. In what reads like a poke at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is running against the Affordable Care Act and may be the presumptive Republican presidential nominee by the time the Court hands down its decision later this year, the brief notes that "Congress cited the Massachusetts law as a template for key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, including the minimum coverage provision."
Beyond the commerce clause dispute, the government's brief pushes the argument that the individual mandate falls within Congress' taxing power. The mandate requires that individuals who do not obtain minimum coverage -- and are not among those exempted from the law - must pay a penalty on their next year's tax return. The government maintains that the penalty constitutes a tax, but three of the four courts of appeals that have heard health care challenges have rejected that idea.
If the Supreme Court accepts the argument that the penalty is indeed a tax, then the Court may invoke a federal statute, the Anti-Injunction Act, to delay a final determination on the mandate's constitutional merits until 2015, when the first penalties are paid. That specific issue will be considered in a separate hour of oral argument in March and was not the subject of today's brief. Indeed, the federal government has urged the Court to rule on the mandate's constitutionality this year, rather than have the law's validity remain uncertain even after the minimum coverage requirement goes into effect.
The Court has set aside two hours specifically on Tuesday, March 27, for oral argument on the individual mandate's constitutionality. The justices are expected to hand down their decision by the end of June.