The Supreme Court finished Monday the first of three days of arguments on the fate of the Obama administration’s overhaul of the nation’s health care system. The justices appear unlikely to 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 Obama’s Republican challengers oppose the law and promise its repeal if the high court hasn’t struck it down in the meantime.
In active questioning over 90 minutes on Monday, no justice appeared to embrace the view 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.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., defending the health law, urged to court to decide what he called “the issues of great moment” at the heart of the case.
With demonstrators chanting outside, eight of the nine justices fired two dozen questions in less than a 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.
“Only Justice Clarence Thomas was silent,” CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen said. “He hasn’t asked a question in six years, and no one expected him to start today.”
The prematurity issue is significant because the key part of the law — the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty on their taxes — doesn’t take effect until 2014, CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford reports.
At issue is whether that penalty is a tax.
One federal appeals court ruled the lawsuits should wait until the law actually takes effect. But even if the Supreme Court agrees, the justices this week will go ahead and hear all the other arguments against the law.
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? 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 was part of the group favoring the law, playing New Orleans-style jazz tunes.
A CBS News/New York Times poll released Monday shows 47 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s Affordable Care Act, including 30 percent who strongly disapprove. In the poll, conducted March 21-25, only 36 percent of those questioned said they support the law either somewhat or strongly.
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.