The Supreme Court building. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg )
Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court announced Monday that it would hear arguments over three days in late March to decide the constitutionality of President Obama's healthcare law, another sign the justices see the case as a once-in-a-generation test of the federal government's regulatory power.
The 51/2 hours of argument are believed to be the most time devoted to a single case since the 1960s.
In the 19th century, the justices often sat silently and listened to arguments over several days in one case. But in recent decades, one hour per case has been the norm, even when a major constitutional question is at issue. The lawyers for each side normally have just 30 minutes to state their cases and answer rapid-fire questions from the bench.
But the healthcare case has been treated as extraordinary and deserving of an especially probing and thorough review. The court will decide whether the Constitution gave Congress the power to require all Americans to have health insurance by 2014.
The justices will focus on a single lawsuit that began in Florida. Lawyers for Florida and 25 other mostly Republican-led states, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, sued and asserted that the entire law passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress should be struck down.
The justices said last month that they would debate and decide four separate questions that arose from the one suit. Each of the issues will be argued as though it were a separate case.
On Monday, March 26, the court will consider an issue that could derail a decision for now. A 19th century law known as the Anti-Injunction Act forbids judges from striking down taxes until the taxpayer has paid the tax and then sought a refund. Under the healthcare law, a citizen who has no health insurance in 2014 would have to pay a "penalty" on his or her tax form that is due in April 2015. If this penalty is deemed a "tax," the Anti-Injunction Act says no judge could rule on it until 2015.
Neither the Obama administration nor the Florida challengers relied on this "tax" argument to delay a decision. The justices appointed outside lawyers to argue the point for one hour.
On March 27, the court will devote two hours of argument to what has been the main issue: Is the mandate that each individual have insurance a valid regulation of the health insurance market, or is it an unconstitutional burden on people who do not want to buy insurance?
On March 28, the court will spend 90 minutes debating a question that arises if the mandate is declared unconstitutional. Must the entire statute fall if this one provision is struck down, or can it be "severed" so the rest of the law can stand?
Also on March 28, the justices will devote an hour of argument to another issue with the law: Did Congress violate states' rights when it expanded the Medicaid program? This healthcare subsidy for low-income and disabled Americans is jointly funded by the federal government and the states, although 90% of the expansion would be paid from Washington.
The justices are expected to decide these issues and hand down their opinions by late June.