Health care case will have attention of nation
Months of preliminary legal skirmishing have laid the groundwork for a titanic battle before the nation's highest court.
It was only a matter of time, but the U.S. Supreme Court made it official Monday by announcing that it will review the constitutionality of the Obamacare health care legislation.
Court watchers estimate the case will be argued in March 2012 and that the court will render its decision next summer, right in the middle of the presidential election campaign.
Frankly, the timing could not be better, because Obama's controversial health care plan will be one of the defining issues of the presidential campaign. The court's decision — however it goes — will be front and center of the campaign debate and set the foundation for voters' decisions in the fall election.
In announcing its decision to hear the case, the high court signaled that this is far more significant than the vast majority of the cases it hears.
The court scheduled 5 1/2 hours of oral arguments, compared to the usual 60 minutes.
Further, the court identified three questions it will decide, one of which came out of left field.
The biggest issue is the constitutionality of the so-called "individual mandate" in the health bill, the provision that compels everyone to purchase health insurance or face a special tax for not doing so.
The question focuses on whether government has the legal authority under a constitution of limited powers to require a citizen to purchase a product the individual would not otherwise have bought.
Advocates say the health insurance issue is so unique that the federal government has the power to punish this kind of economic inactivity. Opponents contend the U.S. Constitution allows the federal government to regulate interstate commerce but not to force people to participate in it.
Needless to say, upholding the mandate would open the door to the government issuing other decrees compelling people to act in ways their federal overseers deem to be in their best interests.
Federal appeals courts have delivered mixed opinions on the question of the mandate's constitutionality, forcing the Supreme Court to settle the issue.
The second question facing the court is whether the mandate is so crucial to the core goal of Obamacare that the entire bill should be struck down if the individual mandate does not pass constitutional muster. In other words, is the issue of the mandate severable from the legislation or not?
The third question — the big surprise — is whether the federal government has the authority to expand Medicaid eligibility beyond the poor to the middle class, driving up state costs in the process. The high court decided on its own to address this question.
The Medicaid provision is not one that has drawn great attention, but it's a potential financial time bomb both for the federal and state governments, particularly bankrupt states like Illinois.
Ever-rising Medicaid costs have been eating up larger portions of state budgets, including in Illinois.
Obamacare's vast expansion of Medicaid eligibility will drive those costs up further and faster, making it virtually impossible for states to meet competing demands for scarce tax dollars without significant and perhaps repeated tax increases.
These intriguing questions will have a direct impact on everyone in multiple ways. The eyes of the nation will be on the court when this issue is argued and decided, and whatever decisions it renders will be amplified in the political debate that follows.