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Paul D. Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general who argued the case on behalf of 26 states suing to block the law, conceded that most people will seek health care and that the case comes down to whether the government can compel an insurance purchase beforehand.

He said it would be permissible to require a purchase once someone shows up at a hospital or doctor, which prompted Judge Marcus to wonder whether the courts should second-guess Congress‘ decisions.

“If it’s rational, doesn’t my job stop at the water’s edge?” he said. “Isn’t it for the legislative branch to make those kinds of calculations and determinations?”

Mr. Clement, though, said there are better ways to force broader health care coverage, such as incentives.

“They could have done the exact same thing, and they could have done it constitutionally,” he said. “Instead, they took the easy way out.”

Meanwhile, Judge Frank M. Hull said she accepted the federal government’s contention that refusing to buy insurance was still an economic decision.

“This whole inactivity business just doesn’t get me very far,” she said.

The case is Florida v. Health and Human Services.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the lead plaintiff in the challenge, said she was encouraged by the way the hearing went.

“Simply put, the federal government failed to justify Congress‘ decision, for the first time in American history, to force citizens to purchase a product,” she said.

On Tuesday, ahead of the hearing, White House adviser Stephanie Cutter defended the law’s ends as good public policy and the means as a constitutional way to deal with cost-shifting.

“Individuals who choose to go without health insurance are actively making an economic decision that affects all of us,” she wrote in a blog posted on the White House website.

“When people without insurance obtain health care they cannot pay for, those with insurance and taxpayers are often left to pick up the tab. That’s why the Affordable Care Act requires everyone who can afford it to carry some form of health insurance,” she wrote.