Morning Newsletter

Justices to rule on health care law

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday that it will hear a challenge to the health care overhaul act passed in 2010, with a decision on President Barack Obama's most controversial domestic achievement likely to come in the summer of his re-election campaign.

As expected, the court said it will decide whether the Affordable Care Act exceeded Congress's power by requiring almost all Americans to have health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty, a powerful constitutional question that probably will make it the court's highest-profile ruling since Bush vs. Gore in 2000.

As a mark of the importance of the case to the court headed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., justices said they will hear 51/2 hours of oral arguments on the constitutional question and related issues. Oral arguments will most likely be held in March over one or two days, with a decision expected before the court recesses in late June.

The White House welcomed the court's announcement. "We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree," White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky countered that the far-reaching law is unpopular with voters.

"Senate Republicans have argued that this misguided law represents an unprecedented and unconstitutional expansion of the federal government into the daily lives of every American," McConnell said.

Accepting appeals from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta — the only appeals court to say the law was unconstitutional — justices said they would consider:

Whether Congress was acting within its constitutional powers by requiring all Americans have at least a basic form of health insurance by 2014. Those who do not would be required to pay a penalty on their 2015 income tax returns.

 Whether other parts of the law can go forward if the so-called individual mandate is found unconstitutional. Lower courts have differed on the question, but the administration says the law's more popular features, such as prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, cannot work financially without the mandate that all join the system.

 Whether Congress is improperly coercing states to extend Medicaid, the subsidized health care for the poor and disabled, to those with incomes of 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Medicaid is a shared expense of the federal and state governments, and the federal government would pay 100 percent of the additional cost through 2016. The percentage would decline after that.

 Whether the issue is ripe for a decision. Some lower-court judges have said the penalty for not having insurance is the same as a tax, and thus cannot be challenged until someone has to pay it in 2015.

Challengers went to court within minutes after Obama signed the bill in March 2010, and more than 25 lawsuits eventually were filed. More than half the states have objected to the act, which was passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress.

On Monday, the court accepted the case brought by Florida and 25 other states, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

The challengers and the administration have urged the court to take the case, saying uncertainty about the law's constitutionality needed to be resolved as quickly as possible. The administration has said the act should be upheld as a valid exercise of federal power, just as Social Security and the Civil Rights Act were found to be constitutional.

It appears that all justices will take part in the decision. Conservative groups had called on Justice Elena Kagan to recuse herself because she worked for the Obama administration as solicitor general. Liberal groups had said Justice Clarence Thomas faced a conflict because of the political activities of his wife. Justices make their own decisions about whether they should recuse themselves.