Supreme Court To Hear Appeal On Constitutionality Of ObamaCare
The Supreme Court will decide on the Constitutionality of the President's health care law by June 2012.
The Supreme Court announced today that it will in fact rule on the Constitutionality of the PPACA during its current term, setting down an argument schedule that is likely to stand as one of the longest in the history of the Court:
WASHINGTON — 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 Supreme Court will also hear argument on an issue that could delay any ruling on the merits of the laws Constitutionality for several years. As I noted back in September, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond threw two lawsuits over the law out on the ground that they were barred by the Anti-Injunction Act, a law which prohibits taxpayers from challenging a tax in Federal Court until after that tax has actually been assessed and paid. This isn’t an argument that any of the other Courts that heard the law had accepted, and even the Federal Government didn’t make that argument in their briefs in any of the lawsuits. Nonetheless, if the Court accepted the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning, it would result in any decision on the merits being delayed for years.
The most striking thing about the Court’s decision today is perhaps the amount of time that the Court will be devoting to this case. as Lyle Denniston explains:
Setting the stage for a historic constitutional confrontation over federal power, the Supreme Court on Monday granted three separate cases on the constitutionality of the new federal health care law, and set aside 5 1/2 hours — probably in March — for oral argument. The Court, however, did not grant all of the issues raised and it chose issues to review only from three of the five separate appeals before it. It is unclear, at this point, whether all of the cases will be heard on a single day.
The Court will hold two hours of argument on the constitutionality of the requirement that virtually every American obtain health insurance by 2014, 90 minutes on whether some or all of the overall law must fail if the mandate is struck down, one hour on whether the Anti-Injunction Act bars some or all of the challenges to the insurance mandate, and one hour on the constitutionality of the expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.
The allotment of 5 1/2 hours for oral argument appeared to be a modern record; the most recent lengthy hearing came in a major constitutional dispute over campaign finance law in 2003, but that was only for 4 hours. The length of time specified for the health care review was an indication both of the complexity of the issues involved, and the importance they hold for the constitutional division of power between national and state governments. There is also a hot political debate going on across the country now on federal vs. state power, and the Court’s coming decision is likely to become an issue in that debate — especially since the final ruling is expected to emerge from the Court in June, in the midst of this year’s presidential and congressional election campaign.
Indeed, one might argue that the most important debate of the 2012 Presidential Campaign will actually take place in the Supreme Court’s courtroom in March 2012. The result in this case is likely to shape a good deal of the debate during the General Election campaign that will just start getting heated up when the decision is likely to get handed down. If the law is upheld, it’s likely to embolden the base of the Republican Party who has spent the last two years campaigning on opposition to the President’s health care law, it’s also likely to embolden the President’s supporters and be seen as a huge political victory for him. If the law is struck down, the same thing is likely to happen. And, if the Court punts on the issue by invoking the Anti-Injunction Act, then the health care debate will continue and Republicans will make repealing ObamaCare a huge part of their re-election strategy. In any case, with four Justices over age 70, and three over 75, the issue of retirements and Supreme Court confirmation is likely to be a huge issue this election cycle, both in the Presidential race and in the Senate elections as the GOP tries to retake majority control of the upper chamber.
The fate of the law is unclear, obviously. The natural inclination given the state of Commerce Clause precedent is to assume that the law will be upheld, as I argued nearly a year ago. Also worth noting, although not entirely decisive, is the fact that the majority of Courts that have heard arguments on the law’s Constitutionality have upheld the law. While the Court may not take polls of the Circuits when it makes its decision, they are no doubt aware of this fact and it’s going to be hard to ignore the fact that most Federal Judges have ruled that the law is fully authorized by the Court’s own precedents. Of course, the Court could decide to distinguish those precedents, or even overrule them to some extent, although both are exceedingly rare events. Finally, of course, the Justices could decide to adopt the Fourth Circuit’s argument on the AIA, thus returning the health care debate to the rough-and-tumble of politics for at least the next four years.
This will no doubt be one of the most closely watched cases in years. One would hope that the Court might actually open up its Chambers and allow these important arguments to be broadcast to the public, but that’s probably unlikely. The best we can hope for in that regard, I think, is that they follow the procedure they have adopted in other high profile cases in recent years and allow the recording of the arguments to be made public immediately upon conclusion of the hearing. It would be beneficial to the public to actually hear these arguments, I think.
If you’re interested in keeping up with the case, one of the best places to keep an eye on will be SCOTUSBlog’s tracking page for the case. They’ll post all the briefs that get filed there when they get submitted, as well as analysis from legal experts on both sides of the many issues involved here. And, of course, we’ll keep on top of it here at OTB as well.