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US Supreme Court begins hearings on controversial 'Obamacare' plan

A ruling is not expected until June – at which point Obama will be knees-deep in a bitter re-election campaign.

Protesters in favour of health care reform demonstrate outside of the Supreme Court in Washington today.
Protesters in favour of health care reform demonstrate outside of the Supreme Court in Washington today.
Image: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

THE US SUPREME COURT has begin hearing a case which will decide the fate of the Obama administration’s overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system, with justices indicating they will not allow an obscure tax law to derail the case.

A decision is expected by late June, in the midst of a presidential election campaign in which all of President Barack Obama’s Republican challengers oppose the law and promise its repeal if the court hasn’t struck it down in the meantime.

With demonstrators chanting outside, eight of the nine justices eagerly jumped into questioning of lawyers about whether the case has been brought prematurely – because a 19th century law bars tax disputes from being heard in the courts before the taxes have been paid.

Under the new healthcare law, taxpayers who don’t purchase health insurance would have to report that omission on tax returns for 2014, and would pay a penalty along with federal income tax on returns due by April 2015. Among the issues to be discussed is whether that penalty is a tax.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., defending the health law, urged the court to decide what he called “the issues of great moment” at the heart of the case and allow the substantive part of the case to be heard immediately.

The 26 US states challenging the law, along with a small business group, also want the court to go ahead and decide on its constitutionality now.

One lower court that heard the case, the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, said the challenge is premature – but today it appeared that the Supreme Court was not likely to buy that argument.

Speed questioning

The justices fired two dozen questions in less than a half hour at Washington attorney Robert Long, who was defending the appeals court ruling.

The questions came so quickly at times that the justices interrupted each other. At one point, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor started speaking at the same time. Chief Justice John Roberts, acting as traffic cop, signaled Ginsburg to go first, perhaps in a nod to her seniority. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, as is his custom, stayed out of the fray.

Attorney General Eric Holder, health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Republican senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Florida attorney general Pam Bondi were in the crowd that filled the courtroom’s 400 seats.

Outside the court building, about 100 supporters of the law walked in a circle holding signs that read, “Protect my healthcare,” and chanting, “Care for you, care for me, care for every family.” A half-dozen opponents shouted, “We love the Constitution!”

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was there, too, declaring anew that GOP front-runner Mitt Romney has no standing to challenge Obama on the law since Massachusetts passed a somewhat similar version when Romney was governor. Santorum said, “If you really want Obamacare repealed there’s only one person who can make that happen.”

A four-person student band from Howard University was part of the group favouring the law, playing New Orleans-style jazz tunes.

Popular cause

The law, much of which has still to take effect, would require almost all Americans to obtain health insurance and would extend coverage to more than 30 million people who now lack it. The law would be the largest expansion in the nation’s social safety net in more than four decades.

People hoping for a glimpse of the action had waited in line all weekend for the relatively few seats open to the public. The justices allotted the case six hours of argument time, the most since the mid-1960s.

Nurses Lauri Lineweaver and Laura Brennaman, who are completing doctoral degrees, had been waiting since noon Sunday and got tickets to see arguments. “It’s an honour to be in the court,” said Lineweaver, 35.

The court will release audio recordings of the arguments on the same day they take place. The first time that happened was when the court heard argument in the Bush v. Gore case that settled the 2000 presidential election.

The last occasion was the argument in the Citizens United case that wound up freeing businesses from longstanding limits on political spending.

Outside groups filed a record 136 briefs on various aspects of the court case.

The first arguments heard today concern whether the challenge is premature under a 19th century tax law because the insurance requirement doesn’t kick in until 2014 and people who remain uninsured wouldn’t have to pay a penalty until they file their 2014 income taxes in early 2015.

Taking this way out of the case would relieve the justices of rendering a decision in political high season, just months before the presidential election.

The biggest issue before the court is tomorrow’s argument over the constitutionality of the individual insurance requirement.

The states and the National Federation of Independent Business say Congress lacked authority under the Constitution for its unprecedented step of forcing Americans to buy insurance, whether they want it or not.

- Mark Sherman

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Associated Press

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