Administration Asks Supreme Court to Rule Quickly on Health Law

By Adam Liptak for the New York Times

The Obama administration asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday to hear a case concerning the 2010 health care overhaul law. The development came unexpectedly fast and makes it all but certain that the court will soon agree to hear one or more cases involving challenges to the law, with arguments by the spring and a decision by June, in time to land in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign.

The Justice Department said the justices should hear its appeal of a decision by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, that struck down the centerpiece of the law by a 2-to-1 vote.

“The department has consistently and successfully defended this law in several courts of appeals, and only the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled it unconstitutional,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “We believe the question is appropriate for review by the Supreme Court.

“Throughout history, there have been similar challenges to other landmark legislation, such as the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and all of those challenges failed,” the statement continued. “We believe the challenges to the Affordable Care Act — like the one in the 11th Circuit — will also ultimately fail and that the Supreme Court will uphold the law.”

On Monday, the administration decided that it would not seek review from the full 11th Circuit. Its Supreme Court petition was not due until November.

Also on Wednesday, two sets of plaintiffs who had won on the core issue in the 11th Circuit filed their own request for Supreme Court review.

“Time is of the essence,” wrote Paul D. Clement, a former United States solicitor general who represents 26 states in the case, urging the justices to move quickly to hear a case on the law, the Affordable Care Act. “The grave constitutional questions surrounding the A.C.A. and its novel exercise of federal power will not subside until this court resolves them.”

The 11th Circuit, in a decision issued in August, ruled that a part of law requiring the purchase of insurance — the so-called individual mandate — was an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional power.

The majority decision, written by Chief Judge Joel F. Dubina and Judge Frank M. Hull, said, “We have not found any generally applicable, judicially enforceable limiting principle that would permit us to uphold the mandate without obliterating the boundaries inherent in the system of enumerated Congressional powers.”

But the court ruled against the plaintiffs on two other points. It said its ruling on the individual mandate did not require “wholesale invalidation” of the law, and it upheld the law’s expansion of the Medicaid program.

The petition from the 26 states and a second one, from the National Federation of Independent Business and two individuals, sought review on the issues they had lost in the 11th Circuit.

Almost all of the usual signs indicate that the court will agree to hear at least one challenge to the law: a federal appeals court has struck down a major piece of federal legislation, the lower courts are divided about its constitutionality, and all sides, including the federal government itself, agree that review is warranted.

It is less clear which case the justices will agree to hear and which issues they will focus on. Simply agreeing to hear a case does not guarantee that the Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the question at the heart of the challenges. The court could agree with some lower courts that some or all of the plaintiffs lack standing to sue or that the central issue is not yet ripe for decision.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., for instance, ruled this month that it was premature to decide the central question, citing a federal law allowing suits only after certain taxes and penalties are due.

A fourth challenge to the law was heard last week by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.