One of the most closely-watched U.S. Supreme Court cases in years began Monday as oral arguments got under way in a legal challenge to President Barack Obama’s health care law - the signature achievement of his presidency so far. Analysts say the outcome of the case likely will affect this year’s presidential election as well as the scope and cost of health care coverage in the United States for decades to come.
The health care case drew scores of demonstrators to the Supreme Court steps, both in favor of and opposed to the law.
An opponent of U.S. President Barack Obama's healthcare law holds a copy of the nation's Constitution during the first day of legal arguments over the Affordable Care Act at the Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2012
At times, impromptu debates broke out between the two sides, but the scene remained civil and peaceful.
Ed Hale is among those supporting the health care reform act. He said "it is unfortunate it was passed during the 'great recession.'"
"It puts people in a foul mood. "But there is a 100-year struggle to pass this sort of law, and it is time to do it. It is time to join the rest of the world.”
A woman named Daveta, wearing a union T-shirt, also supports the law because it extends health care coverage to millions of people who cannot afford health insurance.
“Because we all need health care. And you know, it is not so much those that have it, but those who don’t have it, Daveta said. "I’m out here because I got it and it’s good but I’m [also] out here for those who don’t have it.”
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But there were plenty of protestors against the law, including Ken Campbell, a California dentist. He objects to a part of the law that requires everyone to buy some form of health insurance coverage by 2014 or face a penalty.“
These bureaucrats in Washington, they do not know the name of my family," said Campbell. "They do not know the names of my kids. They do not need to be telling my family what I need to buy and what I need to do. They need to get out of my life.”
Campbell is active in a Tea Party group, as is Amy Brighton, another opponent of the Obama law from Ohio.
“This bill is unconstitutional as it stands. We are not against health care reform," Brighton said. "We are just against this current law.”
The Supreme Court of the United States will hear 5 1/2 hours of oral arguments over three days, an unprecedented amount of time devoted to a single case.
Supporters say the health care law will expand coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and lower health care costs in the long-term. Opponents say health care costs will soar under the law and that the quality of care will suffer.
At the heart of the case is whether a majority of the nine justices on the high court will side with the Obama administration and uphold the law or take the view of opponents who argue that it is an unconstitutional intrusion of the central government into the lives of American citizens.
How the court rules by the end of June could have a major impact on this year’s U.S. presidential election.
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum took the unusual step of speaking to reporters in front of the Supreme Court to repeat a pledge that he will repeal the law if he is elected president. “If we run this campaign, which I will, on 'Obamacare' and we make this the central issue in the campaign and we are successful, there is no doubt that 'Obamacare' will be repealed in one form or another," Santorum said.
Lower courts have had split decisions on legal challenges to the law, prompting the Supreme Court to take up the case and make a final judgment.
Public opinion surveys show that Americans remain sharply divided over the health care law - two years after its passage by Democrats in Congress.
Opposition to the law gave birth to the conservative and libertarian Tea Party movement, which, in turn, helped Republicans retake control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 congressional elections.