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Fight over healthcare law heads toward Supreme Court

The Obama administration and Republican state attorneys both petition the high court to hand down a ruling early next year.

September 28, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Protesters opposed to the Democratic healthcare overhaul rally in Washington.
Protesters opposed to the Democratic healthcare overhaul rally in Washington. (Michael Reynolds / EPA )

Reporting from Washington — The constitutional clash over President Obama's national healthcare law moved closer to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, when both the administration and Republican state attorneys separately asked the justices to hand down a verdict early next year.

Both sides in the legal battle cut short their time for filing their appeal petitions in the high court, and both said they were anxious for a final ruling.

"This healthcare law is an affront on Americans' individual liberty," said Florida Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi. "This case is paramount in our history and will define the boundaries of Congress' power as set forth in our Constitution."

She spoke for Republican officials in 26 states who sued in Florida to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, and she asked the high court to strike down the entire measure, not just its mandate that all Americans have health insurance.

In August, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, ruling on the Florida lawsuit, struck down the mandate as unconstitutional, but upheld the rest of the law.

Shortly after Florida's announcement, U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. asked the high court to review the 11th Circuit decision and to uphold the law in full. He said the justices should defer to "the considered judgment of the elected branches of government on how to address a crisis in the national healthcare market."

Under the new law, all Americans with taxable income must have minimal health insurance by 2014 or pay a tax penalty that begins at $95. Verrilli said that provision was needed to make sure that all who can afford it pay a share of the costs. Uninsured people used $116 billion worth of healthcare services in 2008, he told the court, and these costs were paid by others with insurance or by taxpayers.

Now that both sides have asked the high court to decide the Florida lawsuit, the justices are almost certain to vote to hear the case early next year. When a federal law is struck down as unconstitutional in one region of the country, the justices almost always take up a case to issue a national ruling. The 11th Circuit oversees federal law in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Meanwhile, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Ohio, earlier upheld the law and its mandate in a 2-1 decision.

Though the justices are almost certain to hear the case, it is not certain they will deliver a final verdict on the healthcare law next summer.

Verrilli suggested the court should consider whether a ruling should be delayed until the first taxpayers pay a penalty in 2015.

This month, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia tossed out a lawsuit challenging the healthcare mandate and pointed to a federal tax law that forbids suits until a taxpayer has paid the penalty. By that logic, no one would be entitled to sue and no court — including the 11th Circuit — had authority to rule on the issue until 2015.

david.savage@latimes.com

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