U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing on healthcare reform law. (sketcy by Richard Miller)
Competing protestors debate outside healthcare law hearing in Atlanta.
Five of 26 State Attorneys General suing over federal healthcare law.
ATLANTA - The debate over President Obama's healthcare reform law is so emotionally charged that competing protestors challenged each other on the sidewalk outside Atlanta's U.S. 11 Circuit Court of Appeals Court on Wednesday.
Inside, a three judge panel heard formal arguments over Florida U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson's earlier ruling that the 2010 law is unconstitutional.
Right off the bat, Chief Judge Joel Dubina questioned the Federal government's assertion that it has a right to require Americans to buy health insurance by 2014.
"If we uphold the individual mandates in this case are there any limits on the power of Congress?" asked Dubina.
Acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal justified the mandate to shift the burden of paying medical costs for 50-million uninsured citizens.
Speaking on behalf of 26 states who want to overturn the law, former U.S. Solicitor Paul Clement argued that in 220 years Congress never saw fit to pass a law that required Americans to buy anything.
"It strikes me that this is really about individual liberty," said Judge Stanley Marcus.
When asked if it was a penalty, Federal attorney Kaytal called it a tax, something President Obama and Democrats had denied when the law was passed last year.
"I was frankly, very, very pleased with the Judges' questions," said Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens after the two-and-a-half-hour hearing.
He and four other State Attorneys General who attended the hearing felt they had scored some points.
"When the Federal government can say 'I'm gonna penalize you for not getting off your couch and going to purchase something', then that is a power that I don't think the Federal government should have," said South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Federal government attorneys left the courthouse without comment.
But supporters of the law took heart that during the hearing Judge Dubina had agreed that "health care is unique because you can't tell when someone will need it".
"Healthcare insurance is very different than another product," said Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-healthcare law consumer group.
"Everybody is going to need healthcare; you need it when you're born; you need it just before you die and you need it in between," Pollack added.
No matter what the 11th Circuit decides in the next few months, everyone involved expects the case to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court by next year.
Many believe it could be their most important ruling since the Roe v. Wade abortion case of 1973.
"This is a very difficult case and it will affect all the citizens of this nation," said Judge Dubina as the hearing ended.