-Obama's healthcare law tops new high court term

Oct 3, 2011, 5:34 a.m.
The U.S. Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009. REUTERS/Molly Riley

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's sweeping healthcare overhaul will top the agenda in the new U.S. Supreme Court term that opens on Monday and could be the most momentous in decades.

Returning from its three-month recess, the nation's highest court will confront legal challenges seeking to strike down Obama's signature domestic policy achievement and a host of other charged issues in its 2011-12 term.

Other big cases pit privacy rights against new police tracking technology, involve jail strip searches and address a free-speech challenge by broadcasters to a U.S. government ban on nudity and blurted expletives on television.

More blockbuster cases on using race in college admissions, on Arizona's tough law cracking down on illegal immigrants and on the rights of same-sex adoptive parents may be added to the docket later in the nine-month session.

"By June 2012, this term may prove to be among the most momentous in recent decades," said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel at the liberal Washington-based Constitutional Accountability Center.

The healthcare law, Obama's signature and most controversial domestic achievement that figures to be a prominent issue in the U.S. elections in November 2012, already has overshadowed the term's other cases.

The law, which aims to provide more than 30 million uninsured Americans with medical coverage and to slow soaring costs, has wide ramifications for the health sector, affecting health insurers, drugmakers, device companies and hospitals.

"That of course would be the big enchilada," said former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in discussing the healthcare cases and the new Supreme Court term at a briefing sponsored by the conservative Washington Legal Foundation.


Legal experts said it was impossible to predict how the Supreme Court might rule on the healthcare law and said a decision could hinge on whether Congress exceeded its powers by requiring that Americans buy insurance or face a penalty.

"It will be a close case," Jonathan Cohn, a former deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Justice Department in the George W. Bush administration, said at the briefing.

Other legal experts said any ruling by the nine-member court, closely divided with five conservatives and four liberals, could come down to Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the decisive vote.

The epic healthcare legal battle, which began right after Obama signed the law in March 2010, moved to the Supreme Court on September 28 when the Obama administration and 26 states opposed to the law filed separate appeals.

At issue was a U.S. appeals court ruling in Atlanta that struck down the law's mandate that all Americans have health insurance, but upheld the rest of the law -- the biggest healthcare overhaul in nearly 50 years.

The Obama administration defended the law as constitutional in its Supreme Court appeal.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, a former White House lawyer, said Congress adopted the law to address a national crisis that put health insurance costs beyond the reach of millions of Americans and denied coverage to millions more.

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