WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court signaled Wednesday that it could throw out other key parts of President Barack Obama's health care law if it first finds the individual insurance requirement unconstitutional.
See also: Where AARP stands.
On the third and last day of arguments, the justices appeared to accept the administration's argument that at least two important insurance changes are so closely tied to the insurance requirement that they could not survive without it.
Less clear was whether the court would conclude the entire law, with its hundreds of unrelated provisions, would have to be cast aside.
The justices also spent part of the day considering a challenge by 26 states to the expansion of the Medicaid program for low-income Americans, an important feature in the effort extending health insurance to an additional 30 million people.
The court's liberal justices made clear they will vote to uphold the Medicaid expansion, which would take in 15 million people with the federal government paying almost all the costs.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer voiced strong disagreement with the states' contention that the expansion of the joint state-federal program is unconstitutionally coercive.
"Why is a big gift from the federal government a matter of coercion?" Kagan asked.
The day's earlier session was unusual in that it assumed an answer to the central question in the historic health care case: that the requirement that Americans carry health insurance or pay a penalty will be struck down. In fact, if they follow their normal practice, the justices have not even met yet to take a preliminary vote in the case.
In their questions, the liberal justices took issue with Paul Clement, the lawyer for the states seeking to have the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act tossed out in its entirety.
"What's wrong with leaving this in the hands of those who should be fixing this?" asked Sotomayor, referring to Congress.
Chief Justice John Roberts also spoke about parts of the law that "have nothing to do with any of the things we are" talking about.
For example, Ginsburg observed that the act deals with issues such as black lung disease.
"Why make Congress redo those?" she asked. "There are many things" that have "nothing to do with affordable health care."
But Clement said the court would be leaving "a hollow shell" if it decided to excise the several key provisions. "The rest of the law cannot stand," he contended.
Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy also asked hard questions of Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler that indicated they are at least considering Clement's arguments. Kneedler said that the only other provisions the court should kill in the event the mandate is stricken are revisions that require insurers to cover people regardless of existing medical problems and limit how much companies can charge in premiums based on a person's age or health.