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  |   March 26, 2012 at 10:00 PM
Healthcare challenge begins at high court

WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's signature healthcare reform plan took center stage at the Supreme Court Monday, with justices indicating they're prepared to rule.

The first issue, in three days of scheduled arguments, was whether the high court could handle a challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordability Care Act now, or should have to wait until its provisions are fully implemented, which won't happen until 2014. The question was whether the 19th century Anti-Injunction Act precludes court action now.

SCOTUSBlog reported questioning by justices indicated they do not believe the more than century-old law precludes action now, with Justice Antonin Scalia suggesting any restraint on the court should be interpreted narrowly and Justice Samuel Alito indicating he does not think the Anti-Injunction Act is applicable.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor asked questions indicating they may not consider as taxes the law's individual mandate and penalties for not buying health insurance.

The main provision of the Affordable Care Act being challenged -- the requirement that everyone who can afford it obtain insurance or else pay a fine -- does not go into effect until 2014. If the act bans the current court case, it would be 2015 before the constitutionality of the individual mandate could be thrashed out in the courts.

Arguments continue Tuesday when the justices hear a 2-hour debate regarding the individual mandate.

The thrust of the argument is whether the individual mandate exceeds congressional power outlined in Article I of the Constitution. The requirement that most individuals get health insurance "is a valid exercise of Congress' commerce power," the administration said in a brief to the high court.

On Day 3 of the arguments, Wednesday, the justices will hear a 90-minute debate on whether the individual mandate can be "severed" from the rest of the law. In other words, if they strike down the mandate, does the rest of the law go down with it?

Also Wednesday, the justices hear 60 minutes of argument on the healthcare law's expansion of Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that provides healthcare for the poor.

In a brief, the 26 states challenging the law said the states want to know if Congress exceeds "its enumerated powers [in the Constitution] and violates basic principles of federalism when it coerces states into accepting onerous conditions that it could not impose directly by threatening to withhold all federal funding under the single largest grant-in-aid program [Medicaid]?"

Any threat of a Medicaid cutoff is serious. Medicaid -- for which states provide about half the funding -- accounts for more than 40 percent of all federal funds dispersed to states -- $251 billion in 2009 alone -- and approximately 7 percent of all federal spending.


Benedict says he's 'pilgrim of charity'

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba, March 26 (UPI) -- Pope Benedict XVI made no direct reference to Cuba's political system Monday in his first speech in the communist island country.

Before arriving in Cuba, the spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics had said traditional Marxism no longer works and Cubans should seek "new models."

"It is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality," Benedict said on his flight Friday from the Vatican to Mexico, where he spent the weekend before flying to Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city.

In Santiago de Cuba, Benedict said he came as "a pilgrim of charity" who carries in his heart "the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be, their sufferings and their joys, their concerns and their noblest desires, those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."

The pope noted many in the world are experiencing "particular economic difficulty" and called it part of a "profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families."

"We can no longer continue in the same cultural and moral direction which has caused the painful situation that many suffer," he said. "On the other hand, real progress calls for an ethics which focuses on the human person and takes account of the most profound human needs, especially man's spiritual and religious dimension."

Before arriving in Cuba, Benedict, who will also visit Havana, said he was ready to help the country find new ways of moving forward.

"New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way," he said.

Told of Benedict's comments, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said, "We will listen with all respect to His Holiness."

But he added, "Our people have deep convictions developed over our country's long history."

The Catholic Church in Cuba has struggled to attract worshipers -- less than 5 percent of the population attends Catholic churches, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Sixty percent of the Cuban population is Catholic, the U.S. State Department says.

The church faces criticism from dissidents it has grown too cozy with Cuba's tight circle of decision makers, The New York Times said.

The pope wishes "to revive a somewhat dormant faith, a faith perhaps somewhat faded, but one that is present in the hearts of the Cuban people," Cardinal Jaime Ortega said on state-run television in advance of Benedict's visit.

Castro greeted Benedict on his arrival, shaking his hand but not kissing his ring, The New York Times reported. The newspaper said the pope would also meet Castro's brother Fidel, who was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII in 1962.

Also in Cuba during Benedict's visit is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who arrived during the weekend to begin radiation therapy to treat the return of his cancer.


Police: Zimmerman said Martin attacked him

SANFORD, Fla., March 26 (UPI) -- The neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin said the Florida teen physically attacked him and tried to get his gun, ABC News reported.

The Orlando Sentinel reported Monday authorities said on the night of the Feb. 26 incident and in subsequent meetings George Zimmerman described and re-enacted what he said happened. He told police he had followed the youth because he was behaving suspiciously but turned around after losing sight of him.

Also Monday, hundreds gathered in Sanford, Fla., for a rally in support of Martin and The Miami Herald reported school police had found women's jewelry and what they described as a "burglary tool" in Martin's backpack in October, leading to suspension from school but no arrest.

Zimmerman told authorities he was walking back to his sport utility vehicle when the 17-year-old approached him from behind. The two exchanged words, with the teen asking the Zimmerman volunteer if he had a problem and when the man replied no, allegedly said something to the effect "Well, you do now," the Sentinel said.

Zimmerman said Martin knocked him to the ground with one punch, then jumped on him and slammed his head into the sidewalk several times so hard he was bloodied and battered, the Sentinel said. He said he then shot Martin, who was unarmed, once in the chest from close range in self-defense.

ABC News reported a police source quoted Zimmerman as saying the youth had tried to get his gun.

Zimmerman received medical attention at the scene and then was taken in a police cruiser to a police station for questioning.

Authorities told the newspaper much of Zimmerman's account has been corroborated by witnesses.

Zimmerman, who is white, had told a 911 dispatcher he was following the black teen because he looked suspicious. "We don't need you to do that," the dispatcher said.

ABC News said Martin's girlfriend said in a recording it obtained that she heard him ask Zimmerman, "'Why are your following me,' and then the man asked, 'What are you doing around here?'" She said she heard the two scuffle before the line went dead.

The network said Austin Brown, 13, told investigators he saw a man matching Zimmerman's description lying on the grass moaning and crying for help just moments before he heard the fatal gunshot.

Citing a Miami-Dade Schools Police report, the Herald reported Martin was suspended from school in October after a school security employee reported finding women's jewelry and a screwdriver that the school employee characterized as a "burglary tool" in Martin's backpack. Martin claimed a friend gave him the jewelry, which turned up during a search of his backpack for a graffiti marker.

Martin was suspended for graffiti, four months before he was suspended again -- this time for possession of an empty plastic bag that contained marijuana residue. The Herald reported Monday the suspension was also for possession of a "marijuana pipe."

"It's irrelevant to what happened on Feb. 26, does not change material facts of the situation, specifically that had George Zimmerman not left his vehicle and heeded the police dispatcher's guidance, we wouldn't be here today," family spokesman Ryan Julison said regarding the latest suspension.

Martin's family has acknowledged he had been suspended for tardiness and truancy.

Ben Crump, an attorney for Martin's parents, told the Herald they had not known about the jewelry, which he said was "completely irrelevant to what happened Feb. 26."

"They never heard this, and don't believe it's true," Crump said. "If it were true, why wouldn't they call the parents? Why wasn't he arrested?

"We think everybody is trying to demonize him."

Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, said, "They killed my son and now they are trying to kill his reputation," the newspaper reported.

State Attorney Angela Corey, the lead prosecutor in the case, said it may be tough to get a conviction, noting Florida's "stand-your-ground law," which allows a person to use deadly force if attacked.


Allen bullish on Afghans' fighting skills

WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) -- Afghan troops are ahead of schedule in achieving the skills needed to secure their country, the top coalition general in Afghanistan said Monday.

"They really are better than we thought that they would be at this point; more critically, they are better than they thought that they would be at this point," U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, head of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.

Allen said the Afghans' ability to handle security duties is key to a successful conclusion to the U.S. and NATO presence in the country, the U.S. Defense Department said in a release. Allen testified in Congress last week that the Afghans' capabilities will be one part of the equation he uses to recommend future U.S. troop levels after the remaining 23,000 "surge" forces leave this fall.

Allen said he won't be able to determine what troop levels will be needed going forward until the end of this year's spring and summer fighting season. He said there have been "literally thousands of operations, some large, some small," that Afghan forces have performed alongside ISAF troops, "often in the lead."

He said Afghan security forces have arrested dozens of insurgents, captured caches of explosives and weapons, and broke up an attempt to assassinate the governor of Balkh province.

"I know people will look at these and other examples and say they're anecdotal, that we still face real challenges in attrition and ethnic composition, even corruption in some of the ranks," Allen said. "I'm not saying things are perfect, and much work remains to be done."

But, he said, "They want this responsibility, they want to lead, and we're going to help them to do that."

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