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5 questions: Supreme Court health care case

  • The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether the health care law passed in 2010 is unconstitutional
  • The case: Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida (11-398)
5 questions: Supreme Court health care case

The Supreme Court is tackling President Obama's health care law -- often known as "Obamacare" -- which was enacted in 2010. Here's an "everything you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask" guide to what's happening this week:

What are the justices taking on?

The case is Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida (11-398). Specifically, a coalition of states, including Florida, want four provisions in the landmark health care legislation -- the The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) -- to be ruled unconstitutional. The controversial law passed through Congress in 2010 with a solid Democratic majority in both legislative chambers.

The Supreme Court decided to take on the case after a series of rulings by lower courts. Proceedings, which began Monday, will last six hours over three days.

Read More: The four legal questions being debated

What is the opponents' main issue with PPACA?

At the heart of the states’ argument is the health care law’s “individual mandate” requiring Americans to buy health insurance by 2014 or incur a monetary penalty. President Obama and Democrats say it's needed to lower health care costs and give the nearly 50 million of uninsured Americans access to coverage.

Opponents say the Constitution’s Commerce Clause does not give the federal government a right to command Americans to buy health insurance or face that penalty.

The government, represented by the Justice Department, argues that it does not "amount to taxpayer financing or a new government-run program," CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears says, adding that supporters say Congress "wanted to ensure universal coverage by forcing insurance companies to expand coverage without bankrupting them."

What goes on in the court?

It’s definitely not a "Matlock" episode. Both sides’ lawyers will stand before the nine Supreme Court cases and argue their case.

While the proceedings won’t be televised, there is audio. For those wanting a front-row seat to history: Good luck. There are only 400 seats available to spectators -- and they went fast Monday.

Michael Carvin, an attorney representing the states, argued his case before the Court Tuesday -- and gave a glimpse as to what goes on inside.

Read More: Day 2 proceedings

“Obviously, all the justices were very informed and very active. I think their questions went right to the heart of the matter. Since I think we have got basic and better first principle responses, I am hopeful that will carry the day when they write the opinion.”

Expect a lot of ceremony and decorum, Mears says.

“Court sessions begin promptly at 10 a.m. ET, with the marshal calling the court to order. The chief justice, contrary to popular belief, does not use the wooden gavel. The audience rises as the robed justices enter through red velvet curtains from a back room. After a scripted welcome read by the marshal -- "oyez, oyez, oyez..." -- the sessions begin. Chief Justice John Roberts will announce the case and arguments will proceed.”

As for the actual proceedings? Here’s what will go down: Each side’s lawyers will lay out their case and face a bevy of questions from the justices. This is definitely not for amateurs. And unlike regular court cases, there will be no evidence presented or witnesses.

It will then become a game of “reading the tea leaves” as to how each justice will rule.

Watch: A storybook explainer of the health care law

“Some justices, such as Antonin Scalia, will bluntly tell his colleagues at argument what he thinks of the case, while others, such as Sonia Sotomayor, are more opaque, equally tough in questioning both sides,” Mears says. “Justice Clarence Thomas has not spoken at argument in more than six years, preferring to let the lawyers plead their case without much interruption. That scenario will not happen on this ‘hot’ verbally active bench.”

What do Americans think?

According to a new CNN/ORC International Poll, most of you don’t want SCOTUS to overturn the whole health care law.

The poll finds:

  • 43% approve of the law
  • 50% saying they disapprove
  • Of those who now disapprove, 37% say it’s too liberal
  • 10% say it's not liberal enough
  • 23% want the law to remain as is
  • 43% want some items in the law to be overturned

When could the ruling come?

Once arguments end and the court is adjourned, the justices will meet later this week to vote on the four items before them.

“The chief justice will lead the debate, going by seniority down the line,” Mears says. “Each justice will say how he or she votes and can offer a brief explanation of the reasoning, brief being the key word. The current bench does not favor long-winded discussions at their closed-door conference, the substance of which is never revealed publicly.”

Then they will begin writing their opinions, which could take months. Expect the ruling to come down this summer, Mears adds.

In the end, five votes are needed for a majority opinion. Right now, the court has five justices seen as conservative, and four are seen as liberal -- including Obama’s recent pick, Sonia Sotomayor. While their leanings may be known, justices have been known to buck conventional wisdom from time to time.

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