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Supreme Court to hear arguments on health care law in late March

By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Monday it will hear arguments over three days in late March to decide the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s health care law, another sign the justices see the case as a once-in-a-generation test of the federal government’s regulatory power.

The 5 1/2 hours of arguments are believed to be the most time devoted to a single case since the 1960s.

In the 19th century, the justices often sat silently and listened to arguments over several days in one case. But in recent decades, one hour per case has been the norm, even when a major constitutional question is at issue. The lawyers for each side normally have just 30 minutes to state their case and answer rapid-fire questions from the bench.

But the health care case has been treated as extraordinary and deserving of an especially probing and thorough review. The court will decide whether the Constitution gave Congress the power to require all Americans to have health insurance by 2014.

The justices will focus on a single lawsuit that began in Florida. Lawyers for Florida and 25 other Republican-led states, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, sued and asserted that the entire law passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress should be struck down.

The justices said last month they would debate and decide four separate questions that arose from the one suit. Each of the issues will be argued as though it were a separate case.

On Monday, March 26, the court will consider an issue that could derail a decision for now. A 19th-century law known as the Anti-Injunction Act forbids judges from striking down taxes until the taxpayer has first paid the tax and then sought a refund. Under the health care law, a citizen who has no health insurance in 2014 will have to pay a “penalty” on his or her tax form that is due in April of 2015. If this penalty is deemed a “tax,” the Anti-Injunction Act says no judge could rule on it until 2015.

Neither the Obama administration nor the Florida challengers relied on this “tax” argument to delay a decision. The justices appointed outside lawyers to argue the point for one hour.

On Tuesday, March 27, the court will devote two hours of argument to what has been the main issue: Is the mandate that each individual have insurance a valid regulation of the health insurance market, or an unconstitutional burden on persons who do not want to buy insurance?

On Wednesday, March 28, the court will spend 90 minutes debating a question that arises if the mandate is declared unconstitutional. Must the entire statute fall if this one provision is struck down or can it be “severed” so the rest of the law can stand?

Also on Wednesday, the justices will devote an hour of argument to another issue with the law: Did Congress violate states’ rights when it expanded the Medicaid program? This health care subsidy for low-income and disabled Americans is jointly funded by the federal government and the states, although 90 percent of the expansion will be paid from Washington.

The justices are expected to decide these issues and hand down their opinions by late June.

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