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Obama health care law at Supreme Court: mega case for the history books

US Supreme Court takes up the Obama health-care reform law starting Monday. The case puts the high court center stage in a constitutional showdown that could define the scope of congressional power for generations – and perhaps affect Obama's reelection prospects.

By Staff writer / March 24, 2012

Jim Elder of West Palm Beach, Fla. (l.), a supporter of health-care reform, argued with an opponent who did not wish to be named after a town-hall meeting in Delray Beach, Fla., in 2009. Florida is one of the states challenging the constitutionality of health-care reform.

Lynne Sladky/AP/File

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Washington

When the US Supreme Court begins examining the constitutionality of President Obama's health-care reform law on March 26, there will be more at stake in the unfolding drama than the judicial assessment of Mr. Obama's signature legislative achievement in the White House.

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The case thrusts the high court center stage in a historic constitutional showdown that could define the scope of congressional power for generations. It also threatens to draw individual justices into a heated political debate that might hinder or advance the president's own reelection effort.

In an extraordinary six hours of argument over three days, the justices will take up four separate legal issues raised by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, including the most controversial: a mandate that every individual purchase a government-approved level of health insurance or pay a penalty.

Many legal experts initially dismissed as ridiculous the core constitutional challenge being lodged against the health-care reform law, yet the case is now poised to produce a potential landmark decision – regardless of whether the law is upheld or struck down.

Three federal judges have struck down the so-called individual mandate as unconstitutional, while three others have upheld it. At the appellate level, the Atlanta-based 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down, while the Sixth US Circuit in Cincinnati and the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington both upheld it. The Richmond, Va.-based Fourth Circuit dismissed the lawsuit without reaching the individual mandate issue.

Among the challenging plaintiffs at the high court will be the State of Florida, joined by 25 other states, the National Federation of Independent Business, and several individuals. More than 150 legal briefs have been filed by several hundred lawyers, among them an elite group of advocates set to argue the case.

Public opinion is tilted against the individual mandate, with 51 percent saying it should be declared unconstitutional, and 28 percent saying it should be upheld, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found.

As if the health-care debate wasn't divisive enough, underlying issues in the case mirror broader flash points between Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives – and point up the massive political, economic, social, and legal stakes in the case.

The crux of the case: congressional reach

In broad terms, the president and his supporters favor a central government strong enough to shape economic markets to advance their view of the collective good. They say the Constitution's Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the authority to pass laws regulating commerce and economic activity among the states, supports the individual mandate.

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