WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court indicated Monday that it will find jurisdiction to consider the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the sweeping health care reform law dubbed by many as ObamaCare.
The first of three days of oral arguments began with a 90-minute debate on the so-called individual mandate, which requires most Americans to purchase health insurance or face a penalty. If the court finds that the mandate constitutes a tax, it could mean that the high court does not have jurisdiction over the case.
Much of the debate involved the Anti-Injunction Act of 1867, which prohibits tax refunds for taxes that have yet to be collected. The court invited Washington attorney Robert Long to address whether that law bars the court from hearing the litigation.
"In this case, I don't think you can separate the minimum-coverage requirement from the penalty because the penalty is the sole means of enforcing the minimum coverage requirement," said Long, who argued on behalf of the amici curaie. "I think these plaintiffs would not be satisfied if the court were to render a judgment saying the minimum-coverage requirement is invalidated; the penalty, however, remains standing. Anybody who doesn't have insurance has to pay the penalty. Then they'd have to pay a penalty equal to the cost of insurance and they wouldn't even have insurance."
Most justices appeared to think that the minimum-coverage requirement of the health care law should not be considered a tax, and that the court would have jurisdiction to rule on the landmark case.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli suggested as much in his arguments for the U.S. government.
This case presents issues of great moment, and the Anti-Injunction Act does not bar the court's consideration of those issues," Verrilli said.
Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the penalty is a tax.
"General Verrilli, today you are arguing that the penalty is not a tax," Alito said. "Tomorrow you are going back and you will be arguing that the penalty is a tax."
President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, extending health care coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people. Since its inception, the law has sparked widespread criticism from Republicans over the minimum-coverage mandate.
Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, and a decision is expected to be made early this summer.
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