Why a fast Supreme Court ruling on health-care law might benefit Obama

The Obama administration says it did not consider politics when it asked for a ruling from the US Supreme Court on its health-care law. To be sure, both parties will hope to spin a positive story from the result.

John Bazemore/AP/File
Mike Griffith, of Canton, Ga., holds a sign during a protest against President Obama's health-care reform plan outside the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in June. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments on whether to reverse a Florida judge's ruling that struck down the law.

The Obama administration says it did not consider politics when it asked for a ruling from the US Supreme Court on the constitutionality of health-care reform.

But the reality is that Wednesday’s unexpectedly quick request for the high court to review an appeals court ruling on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could propel the issue front and center at the height of the 2012 presidential campaign.

The Supreme Court is now expected to hear the case (and possibly other, similar cases) after the new year, and likely hand down a decision in June.

The ruling at issue came from a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in August, which struck down the mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance but did not invalidate the entire law.

The Obama administration could have asked the entire 11th Circuit to take up the issue. But analysts see the 11th Circuit as a conservative court, and thus may well have upheld the three-judge panel’s decision.

In a statement Wednesday, the Justice Department sought to include the health-care law in the lofty company of high-profile cases that have survived Supreme Court scrutiny.

“Throughout history, there have been similar challenges to other landmark legislation such as the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and all of those challenges failed,” the department said. “We believe the challenges to the Affordable Care Act – like the one in the 11th Circuit – will also ultimately fail and that the Supreme Court will uphold the law.”

It's hard to predict how the high court's ruling might affect the political calculus in 2012. To be sure, both parties will hope to spin a positive story from the result.

If the high court rules in June and strikes down all or part of the law, it would deal a major blow to Mr. Obama just a few months before the November election. The health-care issue has faded of late; the economy and jobs dominate voters’ concerns.

On the other hand, if the individual mandate – or the entire law – goes down, that could cause Obama’s disspirited Democratic base to rally around him.

And if the Supreme Court upholds the law, Obama would head into November 2012 vindicated on the signature, though controversial, legislative achievement of his presidency. Conservatives would likely become even more energized than they already are, not only to defeat Obama, but also to elect more conservative members of Congress pledging to repeal the law.

Another possibility is that the Supreme Court defers its decision until after the 2012 election, diffusing health care as a potential election issue.

On the political front, if the Republican Party nominates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for president, it would likely cause the health-care issue to lose some of its bite against Obama. Mr. Romney authored the 2006 Massachusetts health-care reform, which has resulted in near-universal coverage and was a model for Obama’s plan.

Romney has defended his reform, including the individual mandate to buy insurance. But he argues that while it was an appropriate experiment for Massachusetts, it represents an unconstitutional reach for power by Washington. If elected, Romney has said he would issue an executive order allowing states to opt out of the law, and also seek the law’s repeal by Congress.

On Monday, after the Justice Department announced that it had filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the 11th Circuit’s health-care ruling, a senior Justice Department official briefed reporters on its action.

According to The New York Times, the official said the administration was not influenced by political timing when it sought an early conclusion to the case.

“Rather, the official, who spoke to reporters on a background basis with no direct attribution, said Mr. Obama’s advisers had concluded that the country needed the closure that would come by an end to the many legal cases and the uncertainty surrounding the huge health care law,” the Times reported Tuesday.

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