By Robert Barnes, (Washington Post) Reprint
The court said it will decide whether the Affordable Care Act exceeded Congress’s power by requiring almost all Americans to have health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty; whether the massive law can survive without the so-called individual mandate; and whether it is premature for the court to pass judgment on the act.
The question of whether it is premature hinges on whether the court decides that the penalty for failing to secure health insurance constitutes a tax. If such a penalty is equivalent to a tax, then–according to an earlier ruling by a lower court–any decision on the law’s constitutionality must wait until the tax is actually levied.
On Monday, the court accepted the case brought by Florida and 25 other states, as well as the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
The case comes from the one appeals court–the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit–that has struck down the law. Three other appeals courts have either said the law is constitutional or that it is premature to hear challenges to it.
Both the challengers and the administration have urged the court to take the case, saying uncertainty about the law’s constitutionality needed to be resolved as quickly as possible. The administration has said the act should be upheld as a valid exercise of federal power, just as Social Security and the Civil Rights Act were found to be constitutional.
“We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree,” White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement Monday.
It could be the court’s most high-profile decision since Bush v. Gore in 2000. And it puts the court in position to weigh in on the question that has roiled the political landscape since Obama’s election: the scope of the federal government’s power.
While the court did not say when it will hold oral arguments in the case, they likely will come in March. The justices normally finish their work by late June, then leave for summer recess.
The court granted extensive oral argument time–5 1/2 hours –to hear the complicated constitutional questions. And it appears that all justices will take part in the decision.
Conservative groups had called on Justice Elena Kagan to recuse herself because she worked for the Obama administration as solicitor general. Liberal groups had said Justice Clarence Thomas faced a conflict because of the political activities of his wife.
Justices make their own decisions about whether they should recuse themselves.
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