US & World

Supreme Court to hear arguments on Obama health care plan

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in March over Obama's health care overhaul.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in March over Obama's health care overhaul.
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The Supreme Court will hear arguments next March over President Barack Obama's new health care system - a case that could drastically alter the political landscape just as voters are about to decide if Obama deserves another term.

The decision to hear arguments in the spring allows plenty of time for a decision in late June, just over four months before Election Day. This sets up an election-year showdown over the White House's main domestic policy achievement.

The justices announced they will hear more than five hours of arguments, an extraordinarily long session, from lawyers on the constitutionality of a provision at the heart of the law and other related questions about the act. The central provision in question is the requirement that individuals buy health insurance starting in 2014 or pay a penalty.

A White House spokesman said, "We are pleased that the court has agreed to hear this case."

"We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree," communications direct Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.

Republicans have called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act unconstitutional since before Obama signed it into law in March 2010. But only one of the four federal appeals courts that have considered the health care overhaul has struck down even a part of the law.

The federal appeals court in Atlanta said Congress exceeded its power under the Constitution when it adopted the mandate. The federal appeals court in Cincinnati upheld the entire law, as did appellate judges in Washington, DC, in recent days.

Randy Barnett, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University, told KPCC's Larry Mantle that Congress would be overstepping boundaries if the mandate was upheld.

"Congress has never, in 230 years of the country, claimed that the power to regulate commerce includes the power to make people engage in commerce," he said Monday. "Nor has the courts ever given it the power to say to people who are not engaged in commerce that they must engage in commerce."

The case could become the high court's most significant and political ruling since its 5-4 decision in the Bush v. Gore case nearly 11 years ago effectively sealed George W. Bush's 2000 presidential election victory.

Bloomberg News healthcare reporter Adriel Bettelheim told Mantle that the Obama administration feels the mandate cannot be severed from related provisions they call for, and their stance "is kind of a take it or leave it, all or nothing argument that they’re putting forward."

"There will be a tremendous amount of spin whichever way the court goes, given the tempest that this health care law kicked off long before it was enacted," Bettelheim said. "It will give some clarity, some finality to what is the signature domestic policy achievement of this administration, a legacy issue for the president."

In addition to deciding whether the law's central mandate is constitutional, the justices will also determine whether the rest of the law can take effect even if that central mandate is held unconstitutional.

The court also will look at the law's expansion of the joint federal-state Medicaid program that provides health care to poorer Americans. The states say the law goes too far in coercing them into participating by threatening a cutoff of federal money.