Buttons reading 'Repeal Obamacare' are displayed at the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, February 9, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
WASHINGTON, DC - As demonstrations raged outside the Supreme Court of the United States, justices sent signals from the highest bench in the country that President Barack Obama's two-year-old overhaul of the health-insurance system might be ruled illegal.
The Republican appointed judges, who hold a majority, pulled no punches in their questions during oral arguments Tuesday on the so-called individual mandate clause of the Affordable Care Act, which would force all Americans that can afford it to buy health insurance by 2014 or else face stiff tax penalties.
Critics of the law, which they've dubbed Obamacare, consider the individual mandate clause a trampling of individual rights and argue if the government can force citizens to fork over money to private companies, there is no limit to what the government can force on its people.
Chief Justice John Roberts asked Obama's attorney general if the government could "require you to buy a cellphone?" Others have suggested he could make Americans buy broccoli, since eating more of it keeps you healthy.
Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy are seen as the two potential swing votes that could sway the ruling on this hot-button partisan issue.
But Kennedy, too, was skeptical and said the government has a "very heavy burden of justification" to keep the law from being struck down.
He added, if upheld, the law "changes the relationship between the individual and the government in a very fundamental way."
Advocates of the bill, including the Obama administration, argue Congress does have the power to regulate the health-care market in which even uninsured Americans are already participating, a point Roberts conceded in court.
"Everybody is in this market," Roberts told the lawyer for the Republican opponents challenging the law's legality. "So that makes it very different than the market for cars or the other hypotheticals that you came up with, and all they're regulating is how you pay for it."
Tuesday was the second of three days of hearings into Obama's signature legislation which he pushed through Congress two years ago. Some 26 states challenged it as unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court's ruling on the Obama's health-care reforms is expected in June, smack dab in the middle of the presidential election.
All of the GOP presidential candidates have promised to repeal Obamacare if elected in November.
In brief, the Affordable Care Act bans health-insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, limits what they can charge seniors, extends Medicaid to an additional 15 million low-income Americans, allows children to stay on their parents' insurance plans until the age of 26, and forces all Americans who can afford it to buy insurance by 2014.
Even some liberals hope the law is thrown out, so that the government could pursue a public health-care option instead, which was not included in Obama's health-care reforms.