WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on Monday over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, derisively labeled "Obamacare" by its opponents. A look at how the case will unfold before the court in question-and-answer form:
Q: What's this all about?
A: The Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is Obama's signature domestic achievement. Passed by Congress in 2010, its aim is to provide health insurance to more than 30 million previously uninsured Americans, while trying to restrain costs and prevent disruptions to the majority already with coverage. Opponents say the law is unconstitutional; their chief argument is that Congress does not have the power to force unwilling Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine.
Q: When will the court get started?
A: Justices will begin hearing arguments shortly after 10 a.m. EDT Monday, March 26. They will hear six hours of arguments on several different issues on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Q: Which issues on which days?
A: Monday's 90-minute argument is about whether court action is premature because no one yet has paid a fine for not having health insurance. Tuesday's two-hour argument will cover the central issue of whether Congress overstepped its authority by requiring Americans to purchase health insurance starting in 2014 or pay a penalty. Wednesday's arguments will be split into two parts: Justices will hear 90 minutes of debate in the morning over whether the rest of the law can take effect even if the health insurance mandate is unconstitutional and another hour Wednesday afternoon over whether the law goes too far in coercing states to expand the federal-state Medicaid program for low-income people by threatening to cut off federal aid to states that don't comply.
Q: When will the justices rule?
A: The court could decide any time, but complex cases argued in the spring normally produce decisions near the end of the court's session, scheduled for late June.
Q: Is it possible that the justices won't decide whether the law is constitutional or not?
A: It is possible. The first issue the court is discussing is whether an obscure tax law makes it too early for the Supreme Court to get involved. If they decide that the issue is premature, then the case will be dismissed without a binding ruling from the justices.
Q: What did lower federal courts say?
A: The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Congress overstepped its authority when lawmakers passed the insurance mandate, the only appeals court to come to that conclusion. The 6th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the entire law, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled that the question was premature and the law can't be challenged in court until after 2015, when the first penalties for not having insurance would be paid.
Q: Who are the justices on the Supreme Court?
A: The chief justice is John Roberts, who joined the court in 2005 after being nominated by President George W. Bush. In order of seniority, the other justices are Antonin Scalia (confirmed in 1986 after being nominated by President Ronald Reagan), Anthony Kennedy (1988 by Reagan), Clarence Thomas (1991 by President George H.W. Bush), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993 by President Bill Clinton), Stephen Breyer (1994 by Clinton), Samuel Alito (2006 by President George W. Bush), Sonia Sotomayor (2009 by Obama) and Elena Kagan (2010 by Obama.)
Q: Who will be arguing for the law?
A: Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. will argue for the government on Monday and Tuesday. Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler will present part of the government's case on Wednesday, and Verrilli will do the rest. Information about Verrilli and the solicitor general's office can be found here: http://www.justice.gov/osg/index.html . A court-appointed lawyer, H. Bartow Farr III, will also argue that if government cannot require people to buy health insurance, all other provisions of the law can go into effect. Another court-appointed lawyer, Robert Long, will also argue that the lawsuits challenging the insurance purchase requirement are premature because the penalty has yet to be imposed.
Q: Who will be arguing against the law?
A: Representing Florida on Monday will be Washington appellate lawyer Gregory G. Katsas. Former Solicitor General Paul Clement, now in private practice, will represent Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday. Former Justice Department attorney Michael A. Carvin will represent the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
Q: Can I go watch the arguments, and if I can't make it to Washington, can I watch on television or online?
A: The Supreme Court does not allow live television or radio broadcasts from inside its building, so the only way Americans can actually see or hear the arguments live is to be inside the courtroom while lawyers and justices debate. There are seats reserved inside the courtroom for members of the public on a first-come, first-served basis, with some people allowed to stay for the entire argument while others have to leave the courtroom and give their seats to the next people in line after 3-5 minutes. The Supreme Court will also make the audio recording of the arguments available later the same day on its website: http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_audio.aspx.
Q: What type of health care do the justices get, and will they be affected by their ruling?
A: The justices participate in the same health care plan as members of Congress and other federal workers. As participants in an employee-sponsored health care plan, it is unlikely that whatever decision the Supreme Court makes will substantially affect their personal health care insurance.
Q: I've heard people say that Justices Elena Kagan and Clarence Thomas should take no part in this case? What's that about?
A: Opponents of the law wanted Kagan to disqualify herself because she served as solicitor general under Obama when the health care overhaul law was conceived and passed. She has said she did not participate in crafting a legal defense for the law, but her detractors doubt her statement. Thomas' detractors insist that he should have disqualified himself because his wife, Ginni, worked with groups that opposed the new law.Comment on this story
Decisions to stay out of a case are the responsibility of each individual justice, and neither Kagan nor Thomas justice stepped aside.
Roberts said in his 2011 year-end report that he has "complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted. They are jurists of exceptional integrity and experience whose character and fitness have been examined through a rigorous appointment and confirmation process. I know that they each give careful consideration to any recusal questions that arise in the course of their judicial duties."