Obama Healthcare Law Faces High Court Hearing

President Obama Talks To A crowd At Prince George's Community College In Largo. (Larry Downing/Reuters)


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul faces its biggest court test next week, capping a legal battle that could reshape the powers of the U.S. government, redefine medical care for most Americans and transform the 2012 election campaign.

The justices on the U.S. Supreme Court will pepper lawyers with questions, possibly signaling how they might rule, during a modern-day record six hours of oral arguments from Monday through Wednesday.

The justices, five of whom were appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democratic ones, promise a ruling by late June on the 2010 law passed by Congress that already has begun to revamp a $2.6 trillion healthcare industry representing nearly 18 percent of the U.S. economy.

While it will likely be impossible to predict with certainty how the court will rule on Democrat Obama's signature domestic policy achievement, the questions and comments from the bench might offer clues about the justices' eventual decision.

It may be the court's most significant ruling with political impact since its decision in 2000 to halt the Florida vote recount, clearing the way for Republican George W. Bush to become president over Democrat Al Gore.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to four presidents, said a case like healthcare occurred once in a generation or maybe even longer, unique both legally and politically.

"A victory for the president would be very substantial. A defeat for the president means that in a sense we politically reopen the situation," Hess said.

Despite their importance, the hearings will be seen by only 400 people each day. Supreme Court hearings have never been broadcast live or recorded on video. The court will release audio recordings and transcripts in the afternoon each day.

The ruling is likely to reverberate in the run-up to congressional and presidential elections on November 6 when Obama will seek another four-year term in the White House.

The arguments will turn largely on whether Congress exceeded its powers under the U.S. Constitution by requiring Americans to obtain insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty.

Two years ago to the day, on March 23, 2010, Obama signed the legislation into law. It seeks to provide health insurance to more than 30 million previously uninsured Americans and to slow down soaring healthcare costs.

The main Republican presidential hopefuls vehemently oppose the law, depicting it as an evil of big government, and vow to repeal it. Opinion polls show Americans deeply divided, and more than half the 50 states - 26 - have joined together to bring the challenge to the highest U.S. court.

Supporters and opponents of the law will demonstrate in Washington during the arguments.

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LANDMARK CASE

Top U.S. lawyers view it as precedent-setting.

Tom Goldstein, a lawyer who argues before the court and is a founder of SCOTUSblog, a website that follows the court, said the ruling would be historic, deciding a fundamental question about a critical part of the Constitution - the definition of Congress' powers.

"However the court rules, its decision is going to be cited for the next 250 years. Nothing in modern American history compares," he said.