The Supreme Court decided on Monday to review President Obama’s 2010 health-care overhaul, promising a high-profile hearing on the question dominating American politics: the constitutional limits of the federal government’s power.
No initiative has exemplified Obama’s progressive domestic agenda or inflamed his conservative opponents like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Republican presidential candidates have taken an oath to dismantle what they derisively call Obamacare, and the court’s decision will deliver an unmistakable — if unpredictable — jolt to the political system in the midst of next year’s national elections.
Interactive: A look at how the health-care law got to the Supreme Court and the issues in play
Next March, around the second anniversary of the act’s passage, the nine justices will hear arguments in the case, taking on the role of constitutional referee between those who see the law as a trespass on individual and states’ rights and those who consider it an extension of a safety net to Americans regardless of where they live or work.
A ruling on whether the Constitution gives Congress the power to require nearly every American to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty will define the court under the still-new tenure of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. It will probably be the court’s highest-profile decision since Bush v. Gore ended the presidential contest of 2000.
As a mark of the case’s importance, the justices said they will hear 51
2 hours of oral arguments on the constitutional question and related issues. That appears to be a modern record: In 2003, the court devoted four hours of oral arguments to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act, a sweeping law aimed at controlling the influence of money in elections.
Even as aspects of the health-care law have been implemented, opponents and supporters have awaited the court’s decision. Oral arguments will most likely be held over one or two days, with a ruling expected before the court recesses in late June.
The court accepted appeals from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta — the only appellate court to say the law is unconstitutional — in a case filed by a business group and 26 states that object to the legislation. Justices said they will consider:
●Whether Congress was acting within its constitutional powers by requiring all Americans to have at least a basic form of health insurance by 2014. Those who do not will be required to pay a penalty on their 2015 income tax returns.
●Whether other parts of the law can go forward if the “individual mandate” is found unconstitutional. Lower courts have differed on the question. The administration says the law’s more popular features cannot work financially without the mandate that all Americans join the system.
●Whether Congress is improperly coercing states to expand Medicaid, the subsidized health-care program for the poor and disabled.
●Whether the issue is even ripe for deciding. Some lower-court judges have said that the penalty paid for not having insurance is the same as a tax and, under the federal Anti-Injunction Act, cannot be challenged until someone has to pay it in 2015.