Skeptical justices question Obama healthcare law

Tue Mar 27, 2012 7:29pm EDT
 

By Joan Biskupic and James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration faced skeptical questioning from a U.S. Supreme Court dominated by conservatives on Tuesday during a tense two-hour showdown over a sweeping healthcare law that has divided Americans.

A ruling on the law's key requirement that most people obtain health insurance or face a penalty appeared likely to come down to Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, two conservatives who pummeled the administration's lawyer with questions.

But Roberts and Kennedy also scrutinized the two attorneys arguing against the 2010 law, which is considered President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement.

The two pivotal justices on the nine-member court asked highly nuanced questions on Tuesday, the second of three straight days of oral arguments. They seemed torn on whether it would be more of a break from past cases to strike down the so-called individual mandate to obtain insurance or to uphold it.

Aggressive in their questioning of both sides, the justices fired off hard-hitting queries about the limits of the federal government's power and whether it could even extend to requiring eating broccoli and buying gym memberships or cars.

While conservative justices took aim at the insurance mandate, liberal justices supported it.

The administration's lawyer, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, told the justices that Congress, in passing the law, was trying to address the troubling problem of shifting costs from people who are uninsured to those who purchase coverage, arguing "the system does not work" and lawmakers were addressing "a grave problem.

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In this courtroom illustration, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (R) speaks at the lectern to members of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 27, 2012. REUTERS/Art Lien