Of the six hours over three days the court has allotted for oral arguments, on Monday the justices will hear 90 minutes of jurisdictional discussion: Is the law far enough along in its implication to give the legal challenge merit, or should that challenge be pushed back several years? The law's requirement that all Americans carry health insurance could be decreed a tax, and courts cannot rule on the constitutionality of taxes until they have been assessed.
The Obama administration and the Republican-led states that brought the lawsuit agree that it should not be deferred and have asked for a speedy ruling by this summer. The Supreme Court enlisted outside counsel to make the opposing case, and recently allotted an extra half hour for the issue, a sign that it's taking that viewpoint seriously.
The focal point of the case -- the law's requirement that uninsured Americans purchase insurance or pay a fine -- will receive two hours of arguments Tuesday. The court will spend a total of two and a half hours Wednesday determining whether the rest of the law may stand or fall along with the individual mandate, and whether the law's Medicaid expansion passes constitutional muster.
Constitutional scholars who support the law -- and even some who oppose it -- say the challenges are far-fetched. Others warn that the high court has bucked expectations in the past and could do so again on this politically charged issue.
If liberals' worst nightmares come true, it would be the first time since the 1930s that the Supreme Court has neutered a sitting president's signature legislative achievement. It would also mark a swift departure from post-New Deal jurisprudence on the limits of federal power.
That generational significance has inflamed public passions. On Friday, some 72 hours before the arguments were set to begin, a handful of people were already lining up outside the chamber for seats, open to the public, to view the arguments. Their ranks swelled over the weekend.
Demonstrations are expected outside the chamber throughout the three days of arguments. A decision is expected by the end of June.