The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear arguments next March on the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s health care law; the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known derisively by some of his conservative critics as “Obamacare.”
The high court will determine the constitutionality of a key provision of the law, mandating that people buy health insurance beginning in 2014 or pay a tax penalty. And the justices will also decide whether the rest of the health care law is valid if the so-called “individual mandate” is invalidated.
Other issues for the court to review include the law’s expansion of Medicare — which requires states to offer coverage to anyone earning less than 133 percent of the federal poverty limit, or lose funding — and the question of whether the courts lack jurisdiction to decide the case because it is premature.
Many provisions of the health care overhaul have not yet taken effect.
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Federal appeals courts in Washington D.C. and Cincinnati recently upheld the law, while an appellate court in Atlanta ruled that Congress exceeded its powers when it enacted the mandate.
With a Supreme Court ruling likely to come down just months before Election Day, next November, this promises to be a politically charged case. The Obama administration and Republicans alike have already predicted a victory for their side.
One question that remains is whether some of the justices, including Clarence Thomas, will recuse themselves due to a perceived conflict of interest. After all,the deck — or rather the court — may already be stacked against the law.
Oddly, the very same day the court decided to take the case, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas attended a dinner in their honor. Among the sponsors of that dinner was Bancroft PLLC, the law firm arguing the case before the court, and Pfizer Inc., which has a huge stake in the outcome of the case.
Moreover, Thomas in particular would appear to have a glaring conflict of interest in the form of his wife, Virginia, also known as Ginni. The judge was slow to disclose that Ginni earned lots of money as a leader in the Tea Party movement, among the most vocal opponents of the president’s health care reform.
As president and CEO of the Tea Party group Liberty Central, Mrs. Thomas earned $150,000, as well as nearly $15,000 from her anti-health care lobbying firm. Ultimately, she was forced to step down from Liberty Central, where she fought to bring down the health care law.
According to Justice Thomas, he claimed he failed to file the information on his wife’s employment “due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions.”
Justices Thomas and Scalia also attended events sponsored by Koch Industries, the billionaire philanthropists for the anti-Obama Tea Party. Specifically, they dined and were featured speakers at Koch-sponsored events, and attended Koch financed political retreats.
And the Koch brothers were the primary beneficiaries of the court’s Citizens United decision, from which Scalia and Thomas did not recuse themselves. That decision allowed for the unlimited corrupting influence of money in political campaigns.
Meanwhile, conservatives have called on Justice Elena Kagan to recuse herself from the case due to her role in giving advice and strategizing on the law while serving as Solicitor General from March 2009 until her confirmation to the high court in August 2010.
There is no indication that Kagan or Thomas intend to bow out of the decision.
Justices are expected to recuse themselves from a case if they have a conflict of interest or their spouses have a financial interest. In the end, whether or not to recuse is up to the individual judge.
All of this is designed to maintain the integrity of the courts. At a time when so many people have lost faith in government, in Washington politics, and in the justice system, it is important for our leaders to avoid even the perception that they are for sale; that the fix is in.
Can Clarence Thomas review the health care case fairly and impartially, even though he broke bread with the Tea Party’s bankrollers, and his wife lobbied against the law and was paid handily for it? Maybe, maybe not. But if this case further pushes the U.S.Supreme Court towards kangaroo court status, not unlike Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the disputed 2000 presidential election, and the Citizens United case, in which corporations were given wide latitude to fund American elections, it will have Thomas’s fingerprints all over it.