What Is the Supreme Court Hearing and Why It Matters To You

by Kristen De Pena | March 27, 2012

If you have a television, radio, Facebook, or friends, you cannot help but to hear about the healthcare case currently in front of the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Monday marked the opening day in Washington, D.C., where the Court set the stage for the crux of the debate beginning today: the now infamous mandates.

To help clear up the many misconceptions about the arguments, State Budget Solutions put together a helpful Q&A, aimed at informing the interested non-lawyers (and quite possibly the lawyers as well) about the issues before the Court.

What is this case about and who are the "sides"?

Termed "Obamacare," the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is at the center of the case; Passed in 2010, it is hailed as the shining achievement of the Obama Administration. Specifically, the court will hear arguments relating to the mandate provisions in PPACA that apply to individuals (Tuesday) and to state Medicare and Medicaid providers (Wednesday).  

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr., Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler, and court-appointed attorneys H. Bartow Farr III and Robert Long argue in favor of the government. Arguing against the law is Gregory Katsas, former Solicitor General Paul Clement, and former Justice Department attorney Michael Carvin, representing the state of Florida and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Those opposing the law believe that it is unconstitutional for a number of reasons, which will be heard in arguments over three days. Indicative of the significance of the case are the multi-day oral arguments; usually, the Supreme Court affords only one day to hear oral arguments on a particular case.

What did the Supreme Court hear on Monday?

The excerpts released from Monday's arguments do not sound remotely connected to the health care debate. For the most part, that is correct. The arguments were primarily procedural in nature, and dealt almost entirely with standing to challenge the law. At issue was whether now is the right time to make a decision on the constitutionality of the law. The shocker? The decision relies heavily on the interpretation of the Anti-Injunction Act of 1867, which bars the court from striking down a law before it takes effect.

Attorney for the government, Robert Long, argued that the mandate is actually a "tax," similar to the taxing penalties imposed by the Internal Revenue Code; nearly every IRS penalty falls under the purview of the Anti-Injunction Act. The Justices countered the many exceptions to the Anti-Injunction Act, and staunchly attacked the government's counterintuitive approach: on Monday the penalty is not a tax, and on Tuesday, the penalty is a tax.

Presumably, the Court cleared away the technicality and although no decision was announced, the comments of the Justices indicated that the Anti-Injunction Act would not stop them from hearing and deciding the case at this time and the Court will hear arguments relating to the crux of the heated healthcare debate.

What will the Supreme Court hear today?

The Justices will hear arguments relating to three influential constitutional areas to determine the lawfulness of the PPACA mandates: the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause and the federal government's broad taxing and spending powers.

The most influential argument from the government in defense of the law will originate with the Commerce Clause, which gives the government the power to regulate commercial activity among the states. Both sides have powerful legal precedent, but within the legal arguments will be compelling rationale about the power and scope of the government.

Additionally, the government will argue that the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes the government to implement laws to carry out legitimate policies, and that the PPACA is a necessary policy: providing universal health insurance coverage. Similarly, the government will reframe Monday's argument by claiming that the mandate is a tax, and therefore falls under the federal government's taxing power. The Justices signaled Monday that this argument would not succeed. 

What is left for the Supreme Court to hear on Wednesday?

First, the Supreme Court will hear arguments relating to whether the entirety of Obamacare can take effect absent the mandate provisions, if declared unconstitutional. Second, the Court will address arguments relating to the second mandate: forcing states to expand federal-state Medicaid programs for low-income people or lose federal funding.

When can I expect a decision?

It is possible that the Supreme Court may decide in favor of the government on the first issue, the Anti-Injunction Act, declare the suit premature, and dismiss the case. Based on the heavy opposition the government faced from the Court on Monday, a dismissal is unlikely. Then, the Supreme Court is likely to rule on the substantive provisions of the PPACA in June or July of this year.

Where can I hear and read the transcript?

A transcript and audio recording will be posted on the Supreme Court's website