First constitutional challenge to health care law reaches Supreme Court: Will the justices take the case?

The constitutional fate of the massive new federal health care law is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court – if the Justices are ready to take on the assignment.  A conservative legal advocacy organization based on Ann Arbor, Mich., the Thomas More Legal Center was the first in a competition among the law’s challengers to get an appeal filed at the Court; it did so last Wednesday.

U.S. Supreme Court. Flickr photo by Phil Roeder

The law, signed by President Obama 16 months ago, runs to more than 2,400 pages.  However, the first appeal, and most of the others likely to follow, focuses only on a single but vital provision: the requirement that virtually all Americans have health insurance, with minimal assured coverage, by the year 2014, or pay a penalty.  The challengers have summoned a number of constitutional clauses against that requirement, but the one raised in the first appeal is that the Commerce Clause does not give Congress the authority to compel Americans to buy a product they don’t want.

Many features of the new law have become widely popular, such as the mandatory coverage of children under their parents’ health insurance up to age 26.  Young adults now have the lowest rate of health insurance of any age group, according to federal officials.   But those same officials have argued that even the most popular features cannot be paid for, unless virtually everyone buys into the health insurance market.

That makes the insurance mandate the core of the new law.  In fact, it is so crucial, a federal judge in Florida has ruled, that none of the law can survive constitutional challenge if that mandate is nullified (and that is exactly what led that judge to nullify whole of the law).

More appeals are on the way

Federal appeals courts across the country have heard, or soon will hear, the challenges that were filed promptly, some even on the day the President signed the measure.  The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, however, was the first to make its decision, on June 29 in a ruling by a three-judge panel in the Thomas More Law Center case.

The Law Center’s lawyers prepared an unusually fast appeal to the Supreme Court, getting it filed there in just under a month, when they could have taken three months.   The aim was to get the case on the Court’s docket in hopes that the Justices would take it up, and decide it in the next term, starting October 3.

“At its core,” the new filing argued, “this case is about the constitutional limits of the federal government.  When Congress acts beyond those limits, as here, the judicial branch should exercise its authority as the guardian of our Constitution” and strike down the insurance mandate.   If the Court does not do so, the Law Center’s attorneys contended, Congress will feel free to “to fix every perceived problem imaginable and to do so by ordering private citizens to engage in affirmative acts…”

The Court could decide by late September whether to hear the Michigan case, or it could wait until more of the appeals arrive.

Lyle Denniston is the National Constitution Center’s Adviser on Constitutional Literacy.  He has reported on the Supreme Court for 53 years, currently covering it for SCOTUSblog, an online clearing house of information about the Supreme Court’s work.