WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether requiring Americans to buy health insurance is constitutional.
Oral arguments will be held in March, and a decision is expected by June, just as the critical electioneering for the next President, the entire House and one-third of the Senate begins.
However, in a sweeping decision, the court also agreed to decide a procedural question that could allow it to postpone dealing with the core issue for several years.
It did so by agreeing to review whether the insurance-mandate penalties included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are a type of tax that can only be challenged after it is collected, rather than before.
If the court determines that it is premature to deal with the core issue, the court would not have the legal power to consider such a challenge until people are required to pay that tax starting in January 2014, legal scholars say.
Lower courts ruled for the Obama administration on this issue, especially the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 2-1 that it did not have jurisdiction to decide the constitutionality of the law because the Anti-Injunction Act requires the person to pay the tax first, seek a refund, and in later proceedings raise the constitutional issue. This court sidestepped dealing with the mandate issue, saying it was premature.
Opponents of the legislation and who believe the mandate to buy insurance is unconstitutional have voiced concern that the High Court could sidestep the critical mandate this year by supporting the 4th Circuit on the procedural issue.
Challengers, including 26 states and most conservatives, view the insurance requirement as an unprecedented intrusion on individual liberty. They contend that Congress cannot use its interstate commerce powers to regulate citizens who choose not to participate in the health insurance market.
The core constitutional issue revolves around the Commerce Clause of the constitution.
The court also agreed to hear the challenge of 26 states of the health law’s expansion of Medicaid, the combined federal/state program that subsidizes health care for low-income Americans.