NEW ORLEANS -- Defenders of President Barack Obama's signature health care law faced intense and occasionally skeptical questioning Tuesday from appellate judges in a New Orleans federal court.
The three-judge panel for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments on whether Congress effectively invalidated the entire Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act when it zeroed out the tax imposed on those who chose not to buy insurance.
The law's supporters say Congress didn't want the law, popularly called Obamacare, to be dismantled when it eliminated the tax in 2017.
But Judges Kurt Engelhardt and Jennifer Walker Elrod both noted that the text of the law still says people must buy insurance. They questioned whether that command now violates the Constitution.
Engelhardt also suggested that it was lawmakers' responsibility to choose which parts of the law should be salvaged.
"Can't they do this tomorrow?" asked Engelhardt, who was named to the court last year by President Donald Trump after serving as a trial judge in Louisiana. "There's a political solution, and you're asking this court to roll up its sleeves and get involved in it."
He went on to ask: "Why does Congress want the judiciary to be a taxidermist for every big-game legislative accomplishment it achieves?"
One of the lawyers defending the health care law, Samuel Siegel, responded that it isn't the appeals court's job "to do what Congress repeatedly refused to do, which is to repeal the Affordable Care Act."
Siegel is representing California, one of the 20 mostly Democratic states that are defending the law in court. The District of Columbia and the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives are also arguing in favor of the law.
On the opposite side is Texas, joined by 18 other mostly Republican states, including Arkansas.
The tax had previously allowed the law to withstand a Supreme Court challenge. Conservative justices had rejected the argument that Congress could require everyone to buy insurance under the Constitution's interstate commerce clause. But Chief Justice John Roberts, joining four liberal justices, said Congress did have the power to impose a tax on those without insurance, and the court upheld the law.
When the legislation was proposed, its supporters said the tax was essential to enforce the mandate for healthy people to buy health insurance, thereby increasing the funding available for insurance claims and helping to keep premiums in check.
But with no tax penalty now in effect, the Texas lawsuit argues, the individual mandate is unconstitutional.
"The law as it stands today is a standalone command to buy an insurance product the government deems suitable," Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins said.
Texas-based U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor agreed in a December ruling, saying the law must be thrown out.
The law's supporters appealed. They argued that those who filed suit have no standing because they aren't harmed by a tax penalty that no longer exists. They say the legal structure of the tax still exists, even if it has been reduced to zero, arguing that could be read as a suspension of the tax.
Supporters also contend that even if the individual mandate to buy insurance is declared unconstitutional, that does not affect the rest of the law, which includes protections for people with pre-existing conditions, Medicaid expansions covering roughly 12 million people, and subsidies that help about 10 million others afford health insurance.
Douglas Letter, a lawyer for the House of Representatives, stressed that point, saying it is judges' responsibility to "save everything you can unless it is evident Congress didn't mean that and would've preferred no statute."
Hawkins warned the judges that "it's a very difficult and dangerous game" to try to second-guess what Congress really meant.
"I'm not in a position to psychoanalyze Congress, and this court is not in a position to engage in psychoanalytical tasks," Hawkins said.
It was unclear when the panel would rule in the case, which is Texas v. U.S., 19-10011.
Information for this article was contributed by Kevin McGill, Rebecca Santana and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of The Associated Press; and by Laurel Brubaker Calkins and Sahil Kapur of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 07/10/2019
Print Headline: Panel hears arguments in health-law case