DOJ asks Supreme Court to hear largest suit on healthcare reform law

The Obama administration Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to hear the highest-profile legal challenge to the healthcare reform law.

The Justice Department filed a brief urging the high court to hear the lawsuit filed by 26 state attorneys general and the National Federation of Independent Business, which have also asked for a Supreme Court hearing. If the court takes the case, it will likely rule by June 2012 — just months before the presidential election.

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A senior Justice Department official said the decision to push for a quick hearing wasn’t motivated by fears that a Republican president would not defend the law. Some legal experts have suggested that whatever risks the administration faces from an election-season ruling, a Republican administration easily could quit defending the healthcare law in court.

“At the Justice Department, our reasoning focused on the policy considerations, particularly the need for a resolution on this matter,” the official said during a briefing with reporters.

The Justice Department is appealing a decision from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Congress did not have the authority to require that most people buy insurance. The administration says the coverage mandate is protected by Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.

“The court of appeals’ reasoning reflects both a serious departure from the appropriate deference due Congress in its choice of means and a basic misunderstanding of the way health insurance works,” the Justice Department’s states in its brief.

Several suits have been filed against the individual mandate, but observers have consistently expected that the 26-state case would ultimately be the one to reach the Supreme Court. The Justice Department said Wednesday that the case is the proper vehicle for determining whether the mandate is constitutional.

The Justice Department wants the justices to rule on the merits of the mandate — not on procedural grounds that might temporarily stop the suits from moving forward.

“The administration’s position, I think, is that the court ought to decide this and uphold the constitutionality of the statute,” the Justice Department official said.

Critics of the coverage mandate say that while Congress has the power to regulate commerce, the mandate goes a step further and requires people to perform an economic activity. The White House argues that the activity in question is using healthcare services, and the mandate simply regulates how people pay for it.

Earlier in the day, the state attorneys general and NFIB filed their own appeals to the high court. Although the 11th Circuit ruled in their favor on the mandate, it declined to strike down the entire law.

The administration’s brief doesn’t address that question — known as severability — and the Justice Department official didn’t take a firm position. He said certain other provisions, namely the requirement that insurers sell coverage to everyone who wants it, depend on the mandate. That’s generally accepted as true, from a policy perspective, but whether those policies are legally severable is a different question.

“When the Supreme Court rules, what it says about the statute and what remains is what we’ll have to work with,” the official said.

The attorneys general also asked the Supreme Court to revisit the 11th Circuit’s ruling that the healthcare law’s Medicaid expansion is constitutional.

The Justice Department official said he does not know whether his department also wants the Supreme Court to review the Medicaid challenge.