WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday promised an extraordinarily thorough springtime review of President Barack Obama's historic health care overhaul — more than five hours of argument, unprecedented in modern times — in time for a likely ruling affecting millions of Americans just before the presidential election.
That ruling, expected before next summer's Independence Day holiday, could determine the fate of Obama's signature domestic achievement, the most far reaching domestic legislation in a generation but a political lightning rod as well. It is vigorously opposed by all of Obama's prospective GOP opponents.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act aims to provide health insurance to more than 30 million previously uninsured Americans. But Republicans have branded the law unconstitutional since before Obama signed it in a ceremony in March 2010.
The court's ruling could be its most significant and political decision since George W. Bush's 2000 presidential election victory. But the justices left themselves an opening to defer the outcome if they choose, by requesting arguments on one lower court's ruling that a decision must wait until 2015, when one of the law's many provisions takes effect.
Twenty-six states led by Florida sued to invalidate the law, and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the high court to strike down the entire measure, not just its mandate that all Americans have health insurance.
In August, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, ruling on the Florida lawsuit, struck down the mandate as unconstitutional, but upheld the rest of the law.
By hearing Florida's case, the court is able to consider multiple questions that other challenges to the health care law did not address. The other suits, including a Virginia case in which the federal government argued states lacked standing to contest the so-called individual mandate, remain available for the Supreme Court to consider.
Florida's case has a high-profile lead attorney in Paul D. Clement, who was U.S. solicitor general under former President George W. Bush and has argued more than 50 cases before the Supreme Court.
Bondi said she was "pleased" with the court's decision.
"We are hopeful that by June 2012 we will have a decision that protects Americans' and individuals' liberties and limits the federal government's power," she said in a statement.
Legal experts have offered a range of opinions about what the high court might do. Many prominent Supreme Court lawyers believe the law will be upheld by a lopsided vote, with Republican and Democratic appointees ruling in its favor. But others predict a close outcome, with Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican appointee who sometimes joins his four colleagues appointed by Democratic presidents, holding the deciding vote on the nine-member court.
The White House has pushed for a final ruling as soon as possible, and Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said the administration was pleased the justices agreed to take the case now, with arguments in March.
The exceptional 51/2 hours allotted for argument demonstrates the significance the justices see in this case. Normally, they allow only one hour, split between two sides.
The health care overhaul would achieve its huge expansion of coverage by requiring individuals to buy health insurance starting in 2014, by expanding Medicaid and by applying other provisions, many yet to take effect.
The central question before the court is whether the government has the power to force people to buy health insurance. The White House says Congress used a "quintessential" power — its constitutional ability to regulate interstate commerce, including the health care industry — when it passed the overhaul.
But opponents of the law, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which sided with Florida and the other 25 states, say that Congress overstepped its authority when lawmakers passed individual mandate. A divided Atlanta court panel ruled that Congress cannot require people to "enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die."
The Atlanta court is the only one of four appellate courts that found the mandate unconstitutional. The federal appeals court in Cincinnati upheld the entire law, as did appellate judges in Washington, D.C., in recent days. The appellate court in Richmond, Va., ruled a judicial decision on the law cannot be rendered until 2015, after the penalties for not having insurance have gone into effect.
The court also will look at the expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal program that provides health care to poorer Americans, even though no lower court called that provision into question. Florida and 25 other states argued unsuccessfully in lower courts that the law goes too far in coercing them to participate by threatening a cutoff of federal money.