Health care law circus hits town

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If there are any doubts as to how big the case that started Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court is, you only need to look at how much time the justices have given for arguments.

In total, the court has set aside six hours Monday, today and Wednesday to hear various challenges to the law that has come to be known as Obamacare.

The last time the Supreme Court heard six or more hours of arguments was 1962, which it heard Arizona and California make their respective cases in an original jurisdiction case over water rights. By contrast, the court listened to lawyers for three hours in 1974 when it determined that President Nixon’s claim of executive privilege was insufficient to permit him to refuse to comply with court subpoenas to turn over tapes he’d secretly recorded in the Oval Office, leading Nixon to resign, and a few minutes more than four hours in 2003 when it upheld the ban of “soft money” campaign contributions.

On Monday, the justices heard an hour and a half on whether court action was premature because no one has yet been fined for not having health insurance. Today, lawyers will argue for two hours whether Congress has the power to require U.S. citizens to buy insurance or face a fine. Tomorrow, justices will listen for another hour and a half to positions on whether the rest of the law is legal if the insurance mandate is ruled unconstitutional, followed in the afternoon by an hour of arguments over whether the federal government is coercing states by threatening to cut off federal aid to those that don’t expand Medicaid coverage for low-income people.

People were lined up early — some over the weekend — to get seats in the courtroom to hear the arguments.

Outside, supporters and opponents of the federal health care act tried to be as visible as possible, including a four-piece brass band from Howard University, according to Associated Press reports. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum dropped by for a campaign appearance to point out the difference between himself and GOP presidential nomination front-runner Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who signed a health care law in 2006 for his state that included the requirement to carry insurance coverage.

Despite the spectacle out front, which often pops up when the justices are listening to cases that are hot-button issues with the public, the only decisions that will matter are the ones that likely will come down some time this summer, decisions that most certainly will impact the presidential and congressional elections in the fall.

It’s possible that the court may agree with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined the law couldn’t be challenged until 2015 when the penalties would kick in. Other appeals courts have split on the legality of the law, with the 11th Circuit saying Congress overstepped it authority with the health mandate and the 6th Circuit and District of Columbia Circuit upholding the law in its totality.

We hope the high court, far removed from the outside theatrics that, thankfully, cannot — and should not — sway the justices in their decision-making, will give a final answer on that question this summer.