Obama administration defends healthcare law in Supreme Court brief

The Obama administration defended its healthcare reform law Friday, arguing that the Supreme Court would have to break with clear precedent to strike down the law’s insurance mandate.

The Justice Department submitted its first brief on the merits of whether the individual mandate is constitutional. The court will hear oral arguments in March and is widely expected to issue a ruling this summer.

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The arguments in Friday’s brief are largely similar to the approach the Justice Department has taken in lower courts. The brief says the mandate is an acceptable use of Congress’s taxing power and defends the policy under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

The tax argument has failed in every lower court, but senior administration officials said they still believe in it.

“There’s no hiding of the ball here,” one official said. “This is front and center.”

The healthcare law requires almost all Americans to either purchase insurance or pay a penalty, which the Justice Department defines as a tax. But lower courts have said the mandate’s purpose is clearly to get people to buy insurance, and Democrats claimed repeatedly during the healthcare debate that the penalty is not a tax.

Administration officials also said they haven’t changed their answer on the key question of how far Congress’s power extends. Even some judges who have upheld the mandate have been concerned about the lack of a “limiting principle” — a clear example of where the power to require a specific purchase would stop.

Administration officials insisted that they do not need to define a limit in their briefs. The mandate falls within the bounds of the Commerce Clause, they said, so the limits in the text of the Constitution and previous Supreme Court cases don’t need to change.

“All the limits are satisfied here, and the fact [they are] satisfied here has no bearing on whether someone could dream up some way they could be satisfied in some hypothetical situation,” an administration official said.