Obama Asks Supreme Court to Settle Constitutionality of Health Care Law

Washington — The Obama administration on Wednesday formally asked the Supreme Court to review its controversial health care law, a move that's likely to set up a blockbuster election-year decision.

Hot on the heels of an appellate court defeat, the Justice Department late Wednesday afternoon filed the 34-page petition urging the court to uphold the law's ambitious mandate that individuals be covered by insurance.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta last month struck down the so-called individual mandate.

“The department has consistently and successfully defended this law in several court of appeals, and only the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled it unconstitutional,” the Justice Department said in a written statement. “We believe the question is appropriate for review by the Supreme Court.”

Opponents of the health care law want the court to act, too.

Earlier Wednesday, the National Federation of Independent Business filed a competing petition urging the Supreme Court to take up the case so it could strike down the law. Separately, 26 states including Florida, Texas and South Carolina filed their own petition Wednesday challenging the law's constitutionality.

“This case offers this court an ideal vehicle to resolve pressing and persistent constitutional questions arising out of the law,” former Bush administration solicitor general Paul Clement wrote on behalf of the 26 states.

Clement had successfully argued at the appellate court level against what's formally called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which opponents deride as “Obamacare.”

The law was billed as extending health care coverage to an additional 30 million U.S. residents. Passed in 2010 over unanimous Republican opposition, the law has also been a centerpiece of GOP attacks on the Obama presidency.

In its 2-1 ruling issued Aug. 12, the 11th Circuit concluded that the constitutional clause granting Congress authority over interstate commerce did not stretch so far as to include requiring individual insurance coverage.

“Congress, in exercising its commerce authority, must be careful not to sweep too broadly,” the appellate court stated in its 207-page majority opinion.

But citing “notions of judicial restraint and respect for the separation of powers,” the appellate court severed the individual mandate provision and let the rest of the law stand. Critics of the law hope the Supreme Court will go further and take the entire law apart.

Underscoring the all-around political intensity, the Justice Department filed its Supreme Court petition far earlier than it had to. The department had foreshadowed its intentions Monday when it announced it would not ask all 11 judges of the 11th Circuit to review the August decision by the three-judge panel.

If the administration had asked for a rehearing by the entire appellate court, which spans Florida, Alabama and Georgia, a final Supreme Court decision would have been pushed back until after the 2012 election. The political calculation could be that the issue will be a winner for the president next summer, whichever way the court rules.

“We firmly believe that, as has been upheld by a number of different decisions, that ultimately the Affordable Care Act will be found constitutional, because it is,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

At least four justices must agree to hear a case for it to be added to the docket. Few think the case will fail to meet this threshold, in part because appellate courts are badly split.

While the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the insurance mandate unconstitutional, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, agreed with the Obama administration that Congress acted within its authority.

“The minimum coverage provision regulates activity that is commercial and economic in nature, namely how and when health care is paid for, and when health insurance is purchased,” Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. argued in his brief Wednesday for the Obama administration.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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