Justice Dept. asks high court to look at health care law

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to decide the constitutionality of a requirement that most Americans buy health insurance by 2014, paving the way for a ruling in the middle of the 2012 presidential election campaign.

Separately, 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business, which have challenged the mandate as exceeding federal power, urged the justices to intervene and strike it down.

The new filings all but guarantee the justices will review the law that is at the heart of President Obama's domestic agenda and that already has become a flashpoint in the race for Republican nomination. All the major GOP presidential candidates have vowed to overturn the law.

The justices, who open a new term on Monday, would likely act on the pending appeals this fall and hold oral arguments in early 2012.

Justice Department lawyers have appealed a decision by an Atlanta-based appeals court that said the individual-insurance mandate went beyond Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce. The lawyers say that appeals court decision, which conflicts with two appeals court rulings rejecting challenges to the law, undermines federal efforts to tackle the "crisis in the national health care market." The administration said the appeals court ruling "denies Congress the broad deference it is due … to address the nation's most pressing economic problems."

The requirement that most Americans buy insurance or face a tax penalty is the centerpiece of the health care law passed by Congress and signed by Obama in March 2010. The law was the most significant change in the nation's health care system since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 and extends insurance coverage to 32 million Americans.

The administration says people without insurance incur billions of dollars in costs that are passed on to the insured. It contends that creates a substantial burden on interstate commerce that is within Congress' power to address.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit disagreed as it declared that forcing people to buy insurance represents an "unbounded assertion of congressional authority."

The 26 states and business group won major portions of their challenge, but the 11th Circuit rejected claims that the law's expansion of Medicaid encroaches on the states and that if the mandate is unconstitutional, the entire law is void. The states and business group have asked the justices to reverse those findings.