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