WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will use an unprecedented week's worth of argument time in late March to decide the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's historic health care overhaul before the 2012 presidential elections.
The high court scheduled arguments for March 26th, 27th and 28th over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which aims to provide health insurance to more than 30 million previously uninsured Americans. The arguments fill the entire court calendar that week with nothing but debate over Obama's signature domestic health care achievement.
With the March dates set, it means a final decision on the massive health care overhaul will likely come before Independence Day in the middle of Obama's re-election campaign. The new law has been vigorously opposed by all of Obama's prospective GOP opponents. Republicans have branded the law unconstitutional since before Obama signed it in a March 2010 ceremony.
In an extraordinary move, the justices are hearing more than five hours of arguments over the health care overhaul. In the modern era, the last time the court increased that time anywhere near this much was in 2003 for consideration of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul. That case consumed four hours of argument.
The Supreme Court will start the week of arguments that Monday with one hour on whether court action is premature because no one yet has paid a fine for not participating in the overhaul.
Federal law generally prohibits challenges to taxes until they are paid. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled earlier this year that the penalty for not purchasing insurance will not be paid before federal income tax returns are due in April 2015, therefore it is too early for a court ruling.
Tuesday's arguments will take two hours, with lawyers debating the central issue of whether Congress overstepped its authority by requiring Americans to purchase health insurance starting in 2014 or pay a penalty. The White House says Congress used a "quintessential" power -- its constitutional ability to regulate interstate commerce, including the health care industry -- when it passed the overhaul.
But opponents of the law, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, say that Congress overstepped its authority when lawmakers passed the individual mandate. A divided Atlanta court panel ruled that Congress cannot require people to "enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die."
The Atlanta court is the only one of four appellate courts that found the mandate unconstitutional.
Finally, Wednesday's arguments will be split into two parts, with justices hearing 90 minutes of debate over whether the rest of the law can take effect even if the health insurance mandate is unconstitutional and an extra hour of arguments over whether the law goes too far in coercing states to participate in the health care overhaul by threatening to cutoff federal money.
The law's opponents say the whole thing should fall if the individual mandate falls. The administration counters that most of the law still could function, but says the requirements that insurers cover anyone and not set higher rates for people with pre-existing conditions are inextricably linked with the mandate and shouldn't remain in place without it.
The court also will look at the expansion of the joint federal-state Medicaid program that provides health care to poorer Americans, even though no lower court called that provision into question. Florida and 25 other states argued unsuccessfully in lower courts that the law goes too far in coercing them to participate by threatening a cutoff of federal money. The states contend that the vast Medicaid expansion and the requirement that employers offer health insurance violate the Constitution.