Justices questioning briskly in health care case

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court plunged into debate Monday on the fate of the Obama administration’s overhaul of the nation’s health care system, starting with pointed questions about a legal issue that could derail the case.

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

With demonstrators chanting outside, eight of the nine justices fired two dozen questions in less than half-hour Monday morning at Washington attorney Robert Long. He had been appointed by the justices to argue that the case has been brought prematurely because a law bars tax disputes from being heard in the courts before the taxes have been paid.

Under the new law, taxpayers who don’t purchase health insurance will have to report that omission on tax returns for 2014 and will pay a penalty along with federal income tax. At issue is whether that penalty is a tax.

Some of the justices reacted skeptically to the idea that the penalties encapsulated in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act were actually a tax.

“What is the parade of horribles?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor if the court decides that penalties are not a tax and the health care case goes forward? Mr. Long suggested it could encourage more challenges to the long-standing system in which the general rule is that taxpayers must pay a disputed tax before they can go to court.

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!”

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

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 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, waited since noon Sunday and got tickets to see arguments.

“It’s an honor to be in the court,” Ms. Lineweaver, 35, said.

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 Monday concerned 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.

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