WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices appear poised to thrust themselves and the Obama administration's signature health care law smack into the middle of the 2012 election.
As early as Monday, following a closed-door session last week, the justices will reveal whether they will consider one or more challenges to the law. If they do, as every court watcher expects, the program that opponents call "Obamacare" will dominate both the legal and political docket throughout the election year.
"This decision could come right in the middle of everything," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
By mid-April, assuming the challenge to the law is considered, the court is likely to hear oral arguments. Public and political attention will spike through the spring. A ruling is likely to come out around the last week of June.
By then, it should be clear which Republican will run against President Barack Obama, and any of the GOP candidates is expected to make repealing the 2010 health care law a centerpiece of the campaign.
After all, University of California at San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson noted, the 2009-10 health care debate "was a titanic political struggle that polarized the nation. It helped inspire the (conservative grass roots) tea party. And it's had a profound effect on people's views of Obama."
If the Supreme Court upholds the individual mandate, which requires nearly everyone to buy coverage by 2014, "it will give the Obama campaign something to trumpet, but it could help mobilize the opponents," Goldford said.
Views of the health care law hardened long ago, especially in the political arena. An October survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 51 percent of U.S. residents surveyed have an unfavorable view of the law, while 34 percent have a favorable view.
Many Democrats won't back down from touting the law. Republicans won't stop criticizing it.
"I've said time and time again: Obamacare is bad news," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said at a recent debate.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry calls the health care law a job-killer. Texas Rep. Ron Paul finds that because of the law, "already insurance premiums are going up." Many Democrats, in turn, embrace it.
Add to that another classic clash: The court's ruling will rivet attention to the president's power of appointing Supreme Court justices. The court itself could become a campaign issue, depending on the ruling's scope. Expect to hear the phrase "unelected judges" a lot.
The one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on is they want a Supreme Court ruling. They have every reason to expect one.
Six separate petitions concerning the health care law are before the court and were scheduled for private consideration at a Thursday conference. It takes at least four justices to agree in private for a case to be granted a full hearing.
The petitions reflect not only high-level interest in the law, but also the conflicting interpretations provided by lower appellate courts. The Supreme Court often agrees to hear cases to resolve these so-called "circuit splits."
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. argued in a legal brief that "review is especially appropriate" because the split circuits differ over a central piece of a law "to address a matter of grave national importance."
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, covering Ohio and other Midwestern states, upheld the law formally called the Affordable Care Act. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, covering Florida and other Southern states, upheld most of the law but struck down the individual mandate.
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