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Court Opens Health-Care Debate With Law That Might Derail Case

The U.S. Supreme Court opens
today its historic review of President Barack Obama’s health-
care law, three days of arguments that might result in the
president’s premier legislative achievement being found
unconstitutional in the middle of his re-election campaign.

The court will determine the fate of a measure designed to
extend insurance to about 32 million people and revamp an
industry that accounts for 18 percent of the U.S. economy.

The six hours of planned debate is the most on a case in 44
years. The core dispute — the law’s upcoming mandate that
uninsured people purchase coverage — comes on the second day.

First, the justices today hear arguments on a seemingly
arcane question: Does the penalty for failing to get insurance
amount to a tax?

It’s “the sleeper issue of the health-care case,” said
Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at the University
of California at Los Angeles School of Law. “The great
constitutional controversy over Obamacare could end with a
whimper rather than a bang.”

A 145-year-old law, the Anti-Injunction Act, says courts
can’t rule on the legality of federal taxes until they are
imposed. For the no-insurance penalty in the 2010 health care
law, which takes effect in stages, that comes in 2015. The
justices may decide it’s too soon rule on the health law’s
constitutionality.

1867 Law

The 90-minute debate on the 1867 law will serve as a
prelude for the court’s arguments tomorrow over the marquee
issue: whether the Constitution lets government require
Americans to either get insurance or pay the penalty.

The mandate is a primary tool the government uses to expand
insurance coverage. The question for the court is whether it
falls within the scope of Congress’ constitutional authority to
regulate interstate commerce.

On the third day of arguments, the justices will hear
debate about what should happen to the rest of the law if the
insurance requirement is voided. The court also will take up
whether the law, by expanding the Medicaid program,
unconstitutionally coerces the states into spending more on
health care for the poor.

The case marks the first time the high court has considered
striking down a president’s signature legislative achievement in
the midst of his re-election campaign. Republican candidates,
including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, are
campaigning against the measure, saying it should be repealed.

Political Decision Expected

A Bloomberg National Poll earlier this month found that
three-quarters of Americans say the Supreme Court will be
influenced by politics when it rules, probably in June, less
than five months before the presidential election.

The sentiment crosses party lines and is especially held by
independents, 80 percent of whom said the court will not base
its ruling solely on legal merits. More Republicans than
Democrats, by 74 percent to 67 percent, said politics will play
a role.

Outside the courtroom, debate heated up over the weekend.

Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain led a
cheering crowd of Tea Party supporters near the court on March
24 calling for the health care law’s demise.

“We the people are here. We the people are still in
charge, and we want our freedom back,” Cain said. More protests
are planned outside the court during the arguments.

Senior Obama adviser David Plouffe said yesterday that
Americans “don’t want to go re-fight this battle.” On CNN’s
“State of the Union” program, Plouffe said, “You ask people,
should we go back to square one? People don’t want to do that.”

Unusual Court Step
Both the Obama administration and the law’s challengers

To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at
gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Steven Komarow at
skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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