WASHINGTON, March 26 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's
sweeping healthcare overhaul on Monday went before the U.S. Supreme Court where the nine justices began hearing arguments in
a historic test of the law's validity under the U.S.
The sweeping law intended to transform healthcare for
millions of people in the United States has generated fierce
political debate. Republican presidential hopefuls and members
of Congress have vowed to roll back the March 23, 2010, law they
say will financially burden states, businesses and individuals.
Now, the healthcare battle has moved from the political
arena to the legal world of the highest court.
Underscoring the issues dividing the country, hundreds of
supporters and opponents marched outside the white-marble
building across from the U.S. Capitol. Banks of news cameras set
up in front of the court near where people lined up in hopes of
getting one of the few seats open to the public.
"Protect our care" and "Don't deny my healthcare,"
supporters carrying signs chanted. Opponents referred to the law
derisively as "Obamacare" and carried signs saying, "Unlawful,"
"Forced to buy" and "Lacks consent of governed."
The courtroom, which holds about 400 people, was packed with
lawmakers from across the street in Congress, prominent
attorneys, top Obama administration officials and those who paid
others or waited themselves over the weekend to get a seat in
the public gallery.
At 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT), the justices convened on the
bench, handed down orders and rulings in other cases and then
went into the arguments over the law, Obama's signature and most
controversial domestic policy achievement.
At the law's core is the requirement that most people buy
health insurance by 2014 or pay a tax penalty. Challengers,
including 26 of the 50 U.S. states, say Congress exceeded its
constitutional power to regulate commerce with this so-called
They argue that government should not meddle so deeply in
people's lives and force them to pay for a product they have
opted against. The Obama administration counters that virtually
every person will need medical care and that those who shun
insurance put a disproportionate burden on the system.
In the United States, annual healthcare spending totals $2.6
trillion, about 18 percent of the annual gross domestic product,
or $8,402 for every man, woman and child.
A HISTORIC CASE
The arguments to be held over three days, and a modern
record six hours, recall past momentous sessions, such as the
2000 presidential election dispute between Republican George W.
Bush and Democrat Al Gore and the 1974 Watergate tapes case that
led to President Richard Nixon's resignation.
The justices, five of them appointed by Republican
presidents and four by Democratic ones, promise a ruling by late
June. Obama is seeking re-election on Nov. 6.
Four distinct legal issues are before the justices, and the
first question they will address is about the timing of any
lawsuit against the individual insurance mandate.
Possibly the driest and most technical subject of the
sessions, yet of great consequence, the issue is whether a
longstanding law called the Anti-Injunction Act prevents people
from challenging the individual mandate until after they have
paid the tax and sought a refund, which would be in 2015.
Of the four U.S. appeals courts that have heard the
healthcare dispute, only one has ruled the challenge to the
individual mandate could not go forward because of the tax law.
Yet the justices plainly believe it important enough of a
potential hurdle that they have scheduled the issue for their
first session and appointed a special lawyer to argue the case.
As a result, the first day's arguments will not reach the
more anticipated issue of congressional power to dictate that
individuals obtain insurance, a step that critics warn could
lead to a wide range of other requirements such as eating
broccoli, joining gyms, or buying American-made cars.
That test of congressional power will be aired on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, two questions will be heard. One is whether,
if the individual mandate is declared unconstitutional, it can
be severed from the rest of the law or all of it must be struck
down. The other is whether Congress improperly put new burdens
on states when it expanded eligibility under Medicaid, the joint
state-federal program offering medical care for poor people.
On Monday, court-appointed attorney Robert Long will argue
that no lawsuit against the individual mandate can go forward
until after someone who refuses to buy insurance has paid the
penalty and sought a refund.
The federal Anti-Injunction Act, dating to 1867, generally
bars anyone from challenging a tax law until it has taken effect
because such lawsuits would hinder the government's ability to
collect revenues needed for the federal budget.
Under the terms of the 2010 healthcare overhaul, the penalty
for refusing to buy insurance would be recorded on a person's
annual tax form and collected by the Internal Revenue Service.
In his written court brief, Long emphasized that Congress
could have carved out an exception from tax policy of "pay now,
litigate later," to allow immediate judicial review of the
individual mandate, yet it chose not to.
A PENALTY, OR A TAX?
When Obama and Democratic sponsors of the healthcare law in
Congress were urging approval of the individual mandate they
insisted the penalty for failing to obtain insurance was not a
"tax." The legislation more often used the word "penalty."
The Obama administration, which had briefly argued in lower
courts that the lawsuits could not go forward until after 2014
because of the Anti-Injunction Act, will argue that the justices
should not regard the sanction for no insurance as a "tax."
The word "penalty" is different from the term "tax," asserts
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in his brief to the
court. He stressed that Congress merely wanted the
insurance-related sanction to be collected by the IRS. It did
not want "the full panoply of statutory rules governing 'taxes'"
Challenging the individual mandate with the 26 states are
the National Federation of Independent Business and individuals
who say they do not want to buy health insurance.
In the arguments on Monday, the challengers will be
represented by attorney Gregory Katsas, who will emphasize that
their challenge is to the mandate, not the penalty that enforces
it, and that the lawsuit should go forward.
Argument transcripts and audio are expected to be available
each afternoon on the court's website: www.supremecourt.gov.
(Reporting by Joan Biskupic and James Vicini; Additional
reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Ian Simpson)
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