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Argument up first: Is it too soon to decide?

The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on Monday, March 26, over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature domestic achievement. Seated from left to right are: Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Standing, from left are: Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on Monday, March 26, over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature domestic achievement. Seated from left to right are: Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Standing, from left are: Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
By Connie Cass
Associated Press Writer / March 26, 2012
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WASHINGTON—On the first of three days of arguments on the health care law, Supreme Court justices and lawyers will focus on a basic question: Should we even be here?

The answer isn't simple.

The highly technical issue is whether an obscure, 145-year-old law means it's too soon for courts to hear challenges to the new mandate that people have insurance or pay a penalty. The Obama administration and the states and businesses opposing the health care law all agree on this: They all want the justices to decide now.

But one lower appeals court embraced the argument that court challenges are premature, so the justices assigned lawyer Robert Long to argue the position that courts can't rule yet on mandatory insurance.

The main arguments Monday:

--Long says the mandate to carry health insurance or pay a penalty is in essence a tax. He says the Anti-Injunction Act prohibits courts from hearing challenges to a tax before it's been collected, and the IRS won't begin enforcing the penalty until after tax day 2015.

--The Obama administration argues that, because the law doesn't call the penalty a tax and the IRS doesn't enforce it that way, it doesn't fall under the Anti-Injunction Act.

--Those challenging the law say the act doesn't clearly direct courts to stay out of tax disputes so the justices are free to decide the case now. The businesses also say the insurance mandate is separate from the penalty for not having insurance -- whether the penalty is a tax or not.

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