Health overhaul fight in pivotal Atlanta court

By Greg Bluestein

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 8 2011 10:15 a.m. MDT

Crystal Johnson, right, a supporter of President Obama's healthcare overhaul, argues with a protester outside the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Wednesday, June 8, 2011. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments on whether to reverse a Florida judge's ruling that struck down the law.

John Bazemore, Associated Press

ATLANTA — The latest round in the fight over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul was being heard Wednesday in the federal appeals court in Atlanta.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on whether to reverse a Florida judge's ruling that struck down the law. Each side was to get an hour, and a clerk said the hearing was running long.

Some 26 states opposing the law and an alliance of small businesses argue that Congress didn't have the power to require virtually all Americans to maintain health insurance. The Justice Department says the legislative branch exercised its "quintessential" right.

A three-judge federal appeals court panel in Cincinnati heard arguments last week about whether the law's mandate to buy health insurance went beyond congressional authority, and a federal appeals court based in Richmond, Va. heard oral arguments May 10 in another legal challenge to the law.

Lawyers on both sides have said the cases ultimately will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the appeal court panel's decision in Atlanta is being closely watched and could help shape the debate.

There's considerable legal firepower on both sides of the argument. Former U.S. Solicitor Paul Clement represents the challenging states and current U.S. Solicitor Neal Katyal will speak for the government.

It unfolded in what's considered one of the nation's most conservative appeals courts. But the randomly selected panel includes two appointees of Democratic President Bill Clinton, and observers say it's hard to predict how they'll decide. The Clinton appointees are circuit Judges Frank Hull and Stanley Marcus, while Chief Judge Joel Dubina was tapped by President George H.W. Bush.

Two similar lawsuits are pending in Virginia. Three federal judges, all Democratic appointees, have upheld the law. Two federal judges, both Republican appointees, have invalidated it.

At issue Wednesday is a ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, a Republican-appointed judge in Florida. It not only struck down a requirement that nearly all Americans carry health insurance, but it threw out other provisions ranging from Medicare discounts for some seniors to a change that allows adult children up to age 26 to remain on their parents' coverage.

The 11th Circuit braced for a crush of people for the arguments, and was opening an adjoining courtroom for the spillover crowd. It also was planning to sell $26 audiotapes of the arguments to those who want recordings of the court sessions.

Outside the federal courthouse in Atlanta, about 75 people gathered on the sidewalk carrying signs ranging from "Hands off my health care" to "No taxpayer funded abortion" and "Throw the socialist out of the White House." No chanting was permitted. One woman who repeated "No more Tea Party" was escorted away by a courthouse security officer.

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