The Supreme Court on Wednesday finished a three-day review of the 2010 health care reform law by appearing willing to let most of President Obama's signature domestic achievement stand.
A day after justices sharply and skeptically questioned the constitutionality of the individual mandate that requires Americans to buy health insurance by 2014, the court seemed more open to the idea of allowing the rest of the law to stand.
At issue Wednesday was the "severability" of the mandate from about 450 separate provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Justices were trying to decide whether the other provisions could stand on their own if they strike down the individual mandate.
A federal judge ruled in 2011 that the entire law rested on the individual mandate and must therefore be overturned. A federal appeals court later disagreed, however.
On Wednesday, attorneys for the 26 states challenging the law argued that the mandate is so central to the law that the entire law must be thrown out - a claim with which Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to agree.
But most other Justices - conservative as well as liberal - seemed to suggest the law could survive without the mandate, even if lawmakers have to find another funding source.
"Why make Congress redo it?" asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "Why should we stop and start from scratch?"
Ginsburg added, "If we have to choose between a wrecking operation and a salvage job, a more conservative approach is a salvage job."
Justice Antonin Scalia also said he was reluctant to comb through the 450 other provisions to decide the legality of each one, and Justice Anthony Kennedy said doing so would be "an awesome exercise of judicial power" that the court is loath to take on.
As on Monday and Tuesday, crowds of protesters and supporters packed the marble plaza outside the court's front steps, carrying signs and holding periodic press conferences.
Several Senators and Representatives made the short walk across the Capitol's east lawn to observe the demonstrations and give mini-press conferences of their own throughout the day. The demonstrations and press conferences were peaceful, however.
On Tuesday, the individual mandate appeared doomed after the court's more conservative Justices attacked the provision by arguing that the government should not be allowed to force people to buy insurance. Most Justices appeared to agree with critics that forcing citizens to buy a certain product could be a disastrous precedent.
Polls continue to show that the public is sharply divided over the law. A CBS News/New York Times poll released Monday found 47 percent of respondents are opposed to the law, while 36 percent approve of it and 16 percent are undecided.
Supporters of the individual mandate say it is necessary to spread health care costs among a larger pool of taxpayers and that it differs from other products and services because those without insurance are raising costs for other taxpayers.
Starting Thursday, Justices will begin private deliberations over the case. A decision is not expected in the immediate future and could happen anytime before the court adjourns in late June.
by RTT Staff Writer
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