The Supreme Court is set to release within a few days its much-anticipated rulings on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the comprehensive health care law enacted two years ago.
The election-year rulings will not only guide how every American receives medical care but will also establish precedent-setting boundaries for how government regulation can affect a range of social areas. Your health and your finances could be on the line.
The outcome's possibilities are myriad: a narrow or sweeping decision? A road map to congressional authority in coming decades? Which bloc of justices, which legal argument will win the day?
Here are five scenarios -- strategic markers of a sort -- to watch as the high court weighs in on health care.
Wait another day?
The first question the high court tackled in its seven-hour marathon argument in March was something few observers had expected: It boiled down to whether the law's individual mandate is a "tax" that could prevent the court from considering the broader constitutional questions.
A little-known federal law -- the Anti-Injunction Act, dating back to 1867-- bars claimants from asking for a refund on a tax until it has been paid.
This "gateway" issue could render moot all the other pending health care questions if the justices think the minimum coverage requirement amounts to a tax.
Most justices seemed reluctant to take that route at the public argument session; they appeared eager to move on and address the broader, more vital constitutional questions. But citing the Anti-Injunction Act might give cautious justices a way out of deciding the explosive issue in an election year.
The majority might conclude that the political branches can best resolve the conflicts, at least for now, or that the matter can be handled after the November elections.
Some court watchers have called this the health care "sleeper issue" that could delay a decision on the constitutionality of the individual mandate for at least four years.
'Weak argument' = certain loss?
Baseball statisticians have nothing on the legal bar. After the arguments, wonky lawyers began counting the number of questions -- some hostile, some polite -- that the nine justices had tossed at opposing counsel. The somewhat squishy idea: the more questions a lawyer gets, the tougher it will be to prevail.
During the two hours of debate over the most closely watched aspect -- the individual mandate -- Solicitor General Donald Verrilli fielded more than 100 questions from the bench. His opponents -- private attorneys Paul Clement and Michael Carvin-- together faced only about 87. Verrilli, as the federal government's key lawyer before the high court, was defending the law from a coalition of 26 states seeking its nullification.
Verrilli, in the view of many court-watchers, had a bad day, struggling at times to find his voice and fend off a furious rhetorical assault by some skeptical members of the bench.
Chief Justice John Roberts was especially tough -- he interrupted Verrilli 23 times, but only on seven occasions on the other side.
As a former government and private advocate before joining the bench, the 57-year-old chief personally argued 39 cases at the high court and was widely regarded as among the best at making his case.
In 2004, while a federal appeals court judge, Roberts wrote a law review article explaining why query counts matter.
"The secret to successful advocacy is simply to get the [Supreme] Court to ask your opponent more questions," he wrote.
Divide and conquer -- 5-4 decisions
But a perceived "weak" argument or a voluminous volley of questions does not necessarily spell doom for the Obama administration. Getting nine intellectual hotshots with big egos to line up all the time along "expected" conservative-liberal lines is largely a myth.
Only eight of the 55 full opinions released by the court this term have been decided by a one-vote margin. Of course, the most contentious cases are normally the last to be finished, and the number of 5-4 rulings is likely to rise with the 15 or so petitions remaining on the docket. But closely "divided" decisions are not the norm overall.
Some legal and political scholars hold out hope the court will offer a united 9-0 voice behind the law's mandate, whatever the outcome, hoping such a decision would instill political and public confidence. They point to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the justices -- despite internal disagreements -- came together to unanimously strike down racial segregation in public facilities.
But this is a different court and health care in many ways is unique in the court's jurisprudence -- the scale, scope, and political underpinnings all make it especially complex and contentious.
To "swing" again