The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta declared the 2010 healthcare law's individual mandate unconstitutional on Friday, heightening expectations that the Supreme Court will address the issue in its next term.
In a 2-1 decision, the 11th Circuit judges ruled that requiring Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty is a federal overreach, but said the mandate is "severable," meaning it can be removed without rendering the entire law unconstitutional. The 300-page ruling reverses part of the January decision by Florida's federal judge Roger Vinson, who had stated that the mandate voided the entire law. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on healthcare.]
Though the Supreme Court has to sift through about 10,000 cases a year in deciding what to address, experts say that when a federal statute is struck down, as is the case with this ruling, it is almost 100 percent assured the case will be heard. Another reason the Supreme Court is likely to take up healthcare is the fact that the new ruling comes in direct opposition to the June decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the constitutionality of the individual mandate. That case was appealed to the Supreme Court in July. "It's a certainty at this point," says Robert Alt, deputy director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the right-leaning Heritage foundation. "Now the only question left is when." [See a slide show of the Supreme Court justices.]
But before the case hits the high court, the government will likely seek an en banc review, which means the entire 12 judge 11th Circuit Court would have to decide whether to review the three-judge panel's decision. And the full court could potentially reverse the decision, removing the urgency. "The [Supreme] Court usually wouldn't treat something as a ripe conflict until the en banc court of the 11th Circuit either granted or denied en banc review," says Irv Gornstein, executive director of Georgetown Law's Supreme Court Institute, adding that "the court almost always grants a petition from the government when it says that a court of appeals has struck down a federal statute."
Still, experts speculate that healthcare could be on the docket as soon as the Supreme Court's next term, which starts in October and ends next summer.