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Health Care Reform Mystery Unveiled

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Dressed in their black robes, the nine Supreme Court justices will emerge from behind regal red curtains this morning at 10 a.m. to solve one of Washington's biggest mysteries: the legal fate of the Affordable Care Act.

Until today, the Supreme Court justices and their clerks have kept their opinion in this case a secret, frustrating politicians and pundits who are confounded by a government branch that doesn't leak.

Even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made fun of the frenzy a couple of weeks ago in a speech: "At the Supreme Court, those who know don't talk and those who talk don't know," she said, quoting a news story. But then she set off a new flurry of speculation when she noted that some of the most controversial cases in the term had yet to be decided. "It is likely that the sharp disagreement rate will go up next week," she said.

She was stating the obvious--the most controversial cases of the term are often the last to be decided. But court watchers parsed every word she said trying to discern her mood. Was that a twinkle in her eye?

Today, the majestic courtroom will be filled with lawyers, congressmen, health care advocates and members of public interest groups. There will be no Blackberrys, smart phones, cameras or videos. Audio of the proceedings will only be released next fall at the start of the next term. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., who argued the case for the government, will more than likely be in the audience, as will some of the lawyers who represented the 26 states challenging the law.

For more on the history of the legal challenges read here

Two benches will be reserved for some of the media, who will be armed only with pen and paper.

At precisely 10 a.m. Chief Justice John Roberts will announce the first of three cases expected to be released. (Besides health care, the court will render a decision on a real estate case as well as a case dealing with military honors.) The justice who wrote the opinion will begin reading a synopsis, and then if there is a dissent, that too might be read from the bench. It's expected that those two decisions will be read before the health care decision.

One floor down, the press room--with piped-in audio from the court--will overflow with court reporters and health care bloggers. As soon as a decision is announced, press officers in the room will hand out written copies of the case. Runners will be poised to race out as soon as they get a copy of the decision to network correspondents who will be wired up and ready to decipher the decision on live television. Even in the press room Blackberry and cellphone usage is restricted.

But what format will the health care decision take? Conceivably, the court could release four separate decisions. Remember, the Supreme Court dedicated over six hours of oral arguments to four distinct issues regarding the law. The first issue is whether a federal tax law bars a challenge to the mandate until after it goes into effect. The second is the individual mandate that requires almost every American to buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. If the court strikes down the mandate (the third issue argued), it will need to decide the fate of the rest of the 975-page law (fourth issue). It will also consider the law's expansion of Medicaid.

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