WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court plunged into debate Monday on the fate of the Obama administration's overhaul of the nation's health care system, starting with pointed questions about a legal issue that could derail the case.
Eight of the nine justices fired two dozen questions in less than half hour at Washington attorney Robert Long. He had been appointed by the justices to argue that the case has been brought prematurely because a law bars tax disputes from being heard in the courts before the taxes have been paid.
Under the new law, taxpayers who don't purchase health insurance will have to report that omission on tax returns for 2014 and will pay a penalty along with federal income tax. At issue is whether that penalty is a tax.
Some of the justices reacted skeptically to the idea that the penalties encapsulated in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act were actually a tax.
"What is the parade of horribles?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor, if the court decides that penalties are not a tax and the health care case goes forward? Long suggested it could encourage more challenges to the long-standing system in which the general rule is that taxpayers must pay a disputed tax before they can go to court.