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“Can you create commerce in order to regulate it?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked the lawyer, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., only minutes into the argument.
Justice Antonin Scalia soon joined in. “May failure to purchase something subject me to regulation?” he asked.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked if the government could compel the purchase of cellphones. And Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked about forcing people to buy burial insurance.
The conventional view is that the administration will need one of those four votes to win, and it was not clear that it had captured one.
The court’s four more liberal members – Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – indicated that they supported the law, as expected. Justice Clarence Thomas, who asked no questions, is thought likely to vote to strike down the law.
Everything about the argument was outsized. It was, at two hours, twice the usual length. The questioning was, even by the standards of the garrulous current court, unusually intense and pointed. And the atmosphere in the courtroom, which is generally subdued, was electric.
The legal question for the justices was whether Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority in requiring most Americans to obtain insurance or pay a penalty. The practical question was whether Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement would survive.
The law is the most ambitious piece of social legislation in generations. In attempting to deliver health care to tens of millions of Americans without insurance, it relied on a controversial mechanism at the center of Tuesday’s arguments -- requiring most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.