Supreme Court Agrees to Settle Fight over Obama Health-Care Law

Article excerpt

The Obama health-care law hangs in the balance, as the Supreme Court opts to hear challenges to its constitutionality. But the case is also about the power of Congress and the role of Supreme Court precedent.

The US Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine the constitutionality of President Obama's health-care reform law, wading into a controversy that has divided political leaders, lawmakers, and much of the nation.

In an unusual move, the justices scheduled 5-1/2 hours for oral argument to cover four distinct issues, including the controversial individual mandate and whether the law is a valid tax and thus immune from challenge under the Anti-Injunction Act. 

It is hard to overstate the potential significance of a high- court ruling addressing the underlying legal issues. The fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) - the president's biggest legislative achievement - hangs in the balance, and it is doing so in a presidential election year.

But the case, ultimately, is about something more fundamental. It is about congressional power and the extent to which the text of the Constitution and the Supreme Court's own precedents limit or amplify that power.

It is also about the role of the Supreme Court itself, and whether the high court under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts will seek to recalibrate the balance of federal and state power.

Since the New Deal, the Supreme Court has embraced an expansive view of congressional authority, with a few notable exceptions. The big question in the ACA litigation is whether the high court will focus on the few exceptions and overturn the health-care reform law, or whether the court will continue to endorse wide-ranging congressional power.

Either way, the decision will be a landmark.

Can the government make you buy health insurance?

At the center of the storm is a provision that requires all Americans to purchase a government-approved level of health insurance or pay a penalty.

Opponents of the law say it marks a dramatic shift in the federal government's posture toward the American people. Never before has the US government ordered citizens to purchase a private product or service under threat of government sanction.

If the federal government can order the purchase of a required level of health insurance, there is nothing to stop the federal government from ordering citizens to buy Ford cars to preserve jobs in the auto industry, join a private gym to keep health costs low, or buy and eat broccoli to boost nutrition, they say.

The health insurance reform measure is designed to expand coverage to those who can't afford it or who have been refused coverage because they have been diagnosed with potentially expensive preexisting medical conditions.

The Affordable Care Act seeks to pay for this expanded coverage in part by requiring the purchase of insurance by young, healthy individuals who might otherwise skip coverage. The larger pool of younger, healthier (and cheaper) insurance customers is meant to spread the risk to health insurance companies and thus help cover the extra cost of insuring those with expensive preexisting medical conditions.

The key question is whether the means chosen by the Democratic Congress and Mr. Obama to accomplish this goal comport with constitutional requirements.

No Republican member of the House or Senate voted for the ACA.

Obama signed the reform measure into law in March 2010. It sparked immediate legal action. Twenty-six states, a church-run college, an association of small businesses, a public-interest law group, and a handful of citizens asked the federal courts to declare the ACA unconstitutional. 

So far, four US appeals courts have ruled on the issue. Three have upheld the law; one, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, struck it down.

The legal dispute begins with 12 words enshrined in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution: "Congress shall have power . …