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Appeals Court Hears Arguments On Health Law

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama's health overhaul law got its first hearing before a federal appeals court today. Lawyers argued two cases before a three-judge panel in Richmond, Virginia. And both cases are about the constitutionality of the health care law.

NPR's Julie Rovner was in the courtroom and she joins us now. Hi, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And I want you to explain to us, these are two cases that were decided by federal court judges last year - two lawsuits, two different results.

ROVNER: That's right. They both challenged the same thing and the question is really whether the federal law can require most people, not everyone but almost everyone, to have health insurance or pay a penalty starting in the year 2014. But one of the cases, this was a case brought by Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the judge in that case found this requirement to be constitutional - in other words, allowable. And in the other case, brought by Virginia's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, the judge found it to be unconstitutional.

So, basically the same requirement but two different results.

SIEGEL: What we're talking about is commonly called the mandate.

ROVNER: That's right, the individual mandate.

SIEGEL: So tell us about what happened in the courtroom today and who the judges were who were hearing these cases on appeal.

ROVNER: Well, I think most people consider this a lucky break for supporters of the law. It's a three-judge panel and it gets drawn by computer. And in this case, there are three Democrats that are hearing these appeals. One was appointed by President Clinton, two were appointed by President Obama.

Now, nobody can predict from what you hear in the oral arguments. But I can tell you that coming out of the arguments, the lawyers for the government, who were backing the law, looked pretty happy.

SIEGEL: Well, was there anything new in the arguments that were heard or any obvious emphasis to the questions?

ROVNER: Well, you know, we've certainly heard it all before, if you've been - anybody who's been sitting through these arguments at the lower courts, as I have. But I think these arguments were a lot more focused, particularly about whether the government can regulate what they call inactivity or people not doing something; in this case, not buying health insurance. And that was really what the judges talked about a lot. And that's been the heart of the argument against this law: Can you regulate inactivity?

And pretty much the government had been arguing that this is not inactivity, that not buying health insurance doesn't mean not consuming health care, that everybody consumes health care at some point. And the judges seemed somewhat sympathetic to that, as have the judges who have upheld this law.

I might add the judges also seemed to question pretty strongly whether or not the state of Virginia actually has standing to bring this case, because this law doesn't impose anything on the state of Virginia, only on individuals. So there is some question about whether or not Virginia actually has the right to sue. And we may see, in fact, Virginia's case thrown out on those grounds, not on the merits of their lawsuit.

SIEGEL: Now, these were arguments before a three-judge panel of federal appeals court judges over lawsuits against the health overhaul law. What happens next? Do we get a decision, then straight to the Supreme Court?

ROVNER: Well, this is known as a pretty fast circuit so we could see a decision within the next several weeks. Attorney General Cuccinelli said that he would expect that if he lost, that he would appeal directly to the Supreme Court. Of course, he could go to the full circuit but he said he wouldn't do that.

There's also two other appeals courts in two different circuits where there will be arguments in June. So this is making its way. Everyone expects it to get to the Supreme Court sometime within the next year.

SIEGEL: NPR's Julie Rovner in Richmond, Virginia. Thanks, Julie.

ROVNER: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.