Supreme Court Petitioned to Consider Health-Care Law

On September 30, 2011, in Legal Matters, by Maggie Ernst

The Obama administration on Wednesday petitioned the Supreme Court to consider the 2010 health-care act, which requires almost every American to have health care. The administration asked the justices to review the decision of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, which is the only appeals court to say Congress exceeded its power in passing the law.

The two judges in the majority in the 11th Circuit ruling called the law’s requirement that virtually every American obtain insurance a “wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority.”  They rejected the administration’s argument that such power is vested in the constitution’s commerce clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce.

The Obama administration has won in the other appeals courts that have considered the law.  In June, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati upheld the health-care law.  Earlier this month, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond turned down a challenge to the law brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia and others, saying the penalty imposed on those who do not obtain health insurance is actually a tax.   It said the courts cannot rule on such a measure until the tax  is actually levied.

The administration maintains that it is confident the act will be upheld as a valid exercise of federal power, such like Social Security and the Civil Rights Act.  If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case in the term that begins Monday, it would likely render its decision by the end of deliberations in June, coming right in the midst of the presidential campaign.  “We believe the challenges to the Affordable Care Act–like the one in the 11th Circuit–will also ultimately fail and the Supreme Court will uphold the law,” the Justice Department said in a statement.  The Justice Department also said that there is much to be done by the federal government, states, and the private sector in order to successfully implement the act by 2014 and that a final decision by the court as to the constitutionality of the law is needed now.

The historic controversy that the health-care law has provoked is evident as 26 objecting states  and the National Federation of Independent Businesses also filed petitions with the Supreme Court on Wednesday.  “It represents an unprecedented challenge–involving over half the states in the nation–to an unprecedented legislative initiative,”  Paul Clement, solicitor general under President George W. Bush wrote in a petition to the court on behalf of the states.  They want the court to review the decision as well, because, while the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel voted 2 to1 to strike the individual mandate, it upheld other parts of the law.

The administration’s petition contains the conditions that almost always guarantee Supreme Court review–a decision by a lower court that an act of Congress is unconstitutional; conflicting opinions in other courts; and an agreement by all parties that the justices need to settle the dispute.  However, the Supreme Court has great flexibility in deciding when and how to take cases.  In addition, just because the court agrees to hear the case, does not mean the court will resolve the issue of constitutionality.  Instead, the court could withhold judgement until the major parts of the act–such as the mandate requiring most all Americans obtain health insurance–go into effect in 2014.