The U.S. Supreme Court is set to issue its decision today on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark healthcare reform bill signed by President Obama two years ago. The case partly centers on the so-called individual mandate, which requires most people buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a tax penalty. The court will decide whether to strike down the mandate and determine whether the rest of the law can stand. Coming on the last day of the Supreme Court’s term, the decision will have major implications not just for the nation’s healthcare system, but also the 2012 election race and beyond. In a speech ahead of the decision, President Obama defended the law.
President Obama: "It’s the right thing to do that we’ve got three million young people who are on their parents’ health insurance plans that didn’t have it before. It’s the right thing to do to give seniors discounts on their prescription drugs. It’s the right thing to do to give 30 million Americans health insurance that didn’t have it before. They want to go forward."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called for the law’s repeal despite its similarities to the mandate-based healthcare measure he oversaw as governor of Massachusetts. At a campaign event in Virginia, Romney said the law’s days are numbered.
Mitt Romney: "If Obamacare is not deemed constitutional, then the first three-and-a-half years of this president’s term will have been wasted on something that has not helped the American people. If it’s not — if it is deemed to stand, then I’ll tell you one thing: we’re going to have to have a president, and I’m that one, that’s going to get rid of Obamacare, and we’re going to stop it on day one."
Violence continues to spread to the Syrian capital of Damascus in the conflict between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces seeking his overthrow. Earlier today, two bombs exploded outside the Palace of Justice in central Damascus, with no immediate word on casualties. The attack comes one day after gunmen killed seven people in an attack on a pro-government television station near the capital. The United Nations, meanwhile, is warning human rights violations by both sides of the Syria conflict are intensifying, with extrajudicial and sectarian killings on the rise. Speaking in Geneva, U.N. investigator Paulo Pinheiro said the United Nations’s findings could be used one day in the prosecution of Syrian officials for war crimes.
Paulo Pinheiro: "We did something that is common with some commissions of inquiry, that we provided a list of names and units of the force, military force or security sections of the government of Syria, that based in our evidence would be able to be investigated as being responsible for gross human rights violations and international crimes."
The Assad regime continues to face new tensions with neighboring Turkey following Syria’s downing of a Turkish fighter jet in Syrian airspace. Earlier today, Turkey began deploying military convoys carrying anti-aircraft weapons to its border with Syria. In a speech, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he will not refrain from retaliating against Syria if provoked.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan: "We will not refrain from teaching a lesson to the state of gangs that has lost its legitimacy in the eye of the people, imposing state terror to its people and trying to test Turkey’s greatness."
At least 13 people have been killed and more than 50 wounded in a series of bombings in and around the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. It was the latest in a recent wave of sectarian attacks targeting mainly Shi’ites that have killed more than 150 people.
In financial news, new information shows the massive loss by JPMorgan Chase from a risky derivatives bet may total as much as $9 billion, far higher than the previous estimate. The bank faced an outcry last month following the disclosure it lost up to $3 billion in trades that it was warned carried a high risk. Now the New York Times is reporting the bank’s own projections showed as early as April the losses could total up to three times that amount.
The banking giant Barclays has agreed to pay a $453 million fine to U.S. and British authorities for manipulating key interest rates. A British probe found Barclays conspired to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR, which provides the basis for rates on trillions of dollars in transactions across the globe. The manipulation meant millions of borrowers paid the wrong amount on their loans. A Justice Department probe of Barclays is continuing, and other banks are expected to be implicated.
In global warming news, Arctic Sea ice has melted faster this year than ever before in recorded history. Research from the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows the extent of sea ice earlier this month was hundreds of thousands of square miles less than it was on the same day in 2007, and about 12,000 square miles less than the previous record low in 2010. Researchers say the ice has been melting at more than double the climatological rate and have attributed the increased melting to climate change. The news comes amid a spate of extreme weather in the United States, with wildfires tearing through Colorado and record rainfall in Florida.
The Obama administration says it expects to authorize the oil giant Shell’s bid to drill in the Alaskan Arctic. Alaska Native groups and environmental groups have opposed the effort, saying the federal government had failed to properly consider the risks. But speaking this week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said it is "highly likely" he will grant the permits to begin drilling as early as next month. Citing recent tests by Shell in Washington state’s Puget Sound, Salazar said: "I believe there will not be an oil spill. If there is, I think the response capability is there to arrest the problem very quickly and minimize damage." Just last week, the Obama administration conducted a $1.7 billion auction for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since the area was hit by the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
A federal judge in Florida has rejected the federal government’s effort to halt the state’s controversial voter purge. The Justice Department had asked the court to stop Florida’s effort to remove thousands of registered voters from the rolls, people Florida officials say are non-U.S. citizens. Critics say 87 percent of those targeted are people of color and say the purge is part of an effort to disenfranchise Democratic voters in a key election state. A number of Florida counties had already frozen their involvement following the Justice Department’s objections, but Wednesday’s ruling could mean the purge resumes.
The House is set to vote on holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt today for failing to meet Republican demands in a congressional probe into the controversial gun-sting operation known as "Fast and Furious." The operation saw U.S. agents encouraging the sale of thousands of guns to middlemen for Mexican drug cartels in an attempt to gain access to senior-level figures within Mexico’s criminal organizations. At least four Democrats are expected to vote with Republicans in an apparent bid to retain the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, which backs the effort against Holder.
Senate leaders have finalized a tentative deal to avoid a doubling of low-interest rates on federally subsidized student loans. Despite the agreement, the Washington Post reports students are still facing major changes that will lead to billions of dollars in increases on student loan payments. Starting on Sunday, students pursuing graduate degrees will now need to start paying their federal loans while they are still in school and immediately after graduation, leading to an increase of $18 billion in loan payments over the coming decade. The government will also stop covering interest on undergraduate loans during the six months immediately following graduation, meaning students will start accumulating interest right away. The changes have been overshadowed in recent days as lawmakers scrambled to prevent a spike in interest rates.
New research shows states that have passed "Stand Your Ground" laws — such as the one invoked by George Zimmerman to defend his killing of Trayvon Martin — have seen more homicides after the laws were approved. Two doctoral students at Georgia State University say their findings show up to 7.4 additional people are killed each month as a result of the law’s passage. The research also shows that states with such laws "have a higher percentage of black population, [are] more likely to have a Republican governor, higher incarceration rates and more police officers ... and have a higher poverty rate." The authors conclude: "Our findings raise serious doubts against the argument that Stand Your Ground laws make America safer."
Newly released documents show George Zimmerman failed at least two times to identify himself as a neighborhood watchman before he shot Trayvon Martin dead in Florida. A police investigator concluded Zimmerman "had at least two opportunities" to defuse his encounter with Martin but failed to do so.
Activists gathered in New York City’s Time Square on Wednesday to call for international regulation of the global arms trade. Amnesty International has launched a campaign for a global arms trade treaty under the auspices of the United Nations. Suzanne Nossel of Amnesty USA said weapons are too easily available worldwide.
Suzanne Nossel: "This would be the first treaty that regulates a trade in arms that results in the deaths of 1,500 people every day, half a million people every year in conflicts around the world. And we’ve used the banana as our motif because we discovered, to our astonishment, that bananas are more heavily regulated than small arms. There are more rules governing your ability to trade a banana from one country to the next than governing your ability to trade an AK-47 or a military helicopter."