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Supreme Court To Decide Constitutionality Of Health Law

Who didn't see this coming?

The Supreme Court has added a case challenging the constitutionality of the provision of last year's health overhaul requiring nearly every American to have health insurance beginning in the year 2014 to the list of cases it will hear this term.

And also, as expected, the case it will hear is the one filed by the National Federation of Independent Business and the attorneys general of 26 states.

The legal showdown will decide once and for all if the administration's sweeping law to extend insurance coverage to millions of Americans will stand.

Befitting the seriousness of the stakes, the court has scheduled a total of 5 1/2 hours of oral arguments on the matter — far more than the usual hour or two granted even for major cases.

The case could be argued in March, with a decision most likely coming at the very end of the court's term in June, according to NPR's Nina Totenberg.

The justices are seeking to examine three major questions.

First, whether Congress had the power to enact the so-called "minimum coverage" provision of the act, also known as the individual mandate. On that question, lower appeals courts have split.

Second, if Congress lacked that power under the Constitution, whether the mandate provision can be considered separately from the rest of the law. If not, and the mandate doesn't pass constitutional muster, the entire law would be declared unconstitutional.

The trial judge in the Florida case, Judge Roger Vinson, ruled that the mandate and the rest of the law are inextricably linked. But every other federal judge at every level who has ruled that Congress overstepped its authority has ruled that most of the rest of the law can remain intact even if that one provision must fall.

Finally, the justices want to examine whether all of the cases brought against the law so far are premature because of a law called the Anti-Injunction Act.

That's a federal law that prevents suits against a government-imposed tax until after the tax has been collected. While the federal government has argued that the penalty for failing to have health insurance isn't a tax, some judges, including a majority on the Fourth Circuit court of appeals in Richmond, Va., have ruled that otherwise, thus making the Anti-Injunction Act applicable.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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