New York Times
The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a challenge to the 2010 health care overhaul law, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. The development set the stage for oral arguments by March and a decision in late June, in the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign.
The court’s decision to step in had been expected, but Monday’s order answered many questions about just how the case would proceed. Indeed, it offered a roadmap toward a ruling that will help define the legacy of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Appeals from three courts had been vying for the justices’ attention, presenting an array of issues beyond the central one of whether Congress has the constitutional power to require people to purchase health insurance or face a penalty through the so-called individual mandate.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear appeals from just one decision, from the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, the only one so far striking down the mandate. The decision, from a divided three-judge panel, said the mandate overstepped Congressional authority and could not be justified by the constitutional power “to regulate commerce” or “to lay and collect taxes.”
The appeals court went no further, though, severing the mandate from the rest of the law.
On Monday, the justices agreed to decide not only whether the mandate is constitutional but also whether, if it is not, how much of the balance of the law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, must fall along with it.
Even the Obama administration, while arguing that the mandate is perfectly constitutional, has said that it is “absolutely intertwined” with two other provisions — one forbidding insurers to turn away applicants, the other barring them from taking account of pre-existing conditions.
The 11th Circuit ruled for the administration on another point, rejecting a challenge to the law’s expansion of the Medicaid program. The Supreme Court also agreed to hear an appeal from that ruling.
The 26 states, represented by Paul D. Clement, a former United States solicitor general, had argued that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority by expanding the eligibility and coverage thresholds that states must adopt to remain eligible to participate in Medicaid.
The problem, Mr. Clement wrote, was that “Congress did not tie its new conditions only to those additional federal funds made newly available under” the Affordable Care Act. “It instead made the new terms a condition of continued participation in Medicaid, thereby threatening each State with the loss of all federal Medicaid funds — on average, more than a billion dollars per year — unless it adopts the act’s substantial expansions of state obligations.”
On Monday, the justices agreed to consider that question. The justices also said they would consider an intriguing threshold issue.
In September, a divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled that it was premature to decide the case in light of the Anti-Injunction Act, a federal law that bars suits “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax.” The Supreme Court had interpreted the term “tax” very broadly for purposes of the law.
If the Fourth Circuit ruling is correct, individuals may not challenge the individual mandate until the first penalty is due in April 2015. On Tuesday, a dissenting judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also endorsed that position.
The administration had initially pressed but later abandoned the argument. In the Supreme Court, the Justice Department suggested that the court consider the issue and perhaps appoint a lawyer to present arguments in favor of it, as the court occasionally does when the parties agree on a significant issue that could alter the outcome of the eventual decision.