A recent "Time" magazine cover featured an intense, distinguished-looking older man, wearing glasses and the slightest of smiles. Most Americans would not recognize him if he walked down the grocery store aisle.
But, as with most hot-button Supreme Court cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy -- the moderate-conservative often referred to as the "swing" justice -- could decide whether the individual mandate stands.
So many are watching the native of Sacramento, California, who turns 76 next month, as well as another fellow conservative.
"With the four more liberal justices almost certain to vote to uphold the individual mandate, the administration is really hoping for the votes of either the chief justice, who signaled that he had questions for both sides, or the traditional swing vote in the court, Anthony Kennedy, who really was tough on the government lawyer but toward the end suggested that maybe insurance was special enough that he could vote to uphold the mandate," said Thomas Goldstein, SCOTUSblog.com publisher.
Even the perception that his vote might be in play builds Kennedy's power from within, and makes him one to watch.
Will the Supreme Court think big when issuing its decision -- sweeping pronouncements on the scope of federal vs. state power when it comes to the Commerce Clause? Or will a narrow approach be the way the justices reach consensus, some sort of workable solution that would give Congress clear guidance going forward -- the discretion to perhaps reshape health care in a way that meets constitutional scrutiny.
The key may be how the court's shaky conservative majority defines a long-standing bedrock principle: judicial deference.
Some states have long complained that their autonomy is being eroded by creeping federal intervention on spending matters.
Article 1 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to "lay and collect ... taxes to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States" and to "regulate commerce ... among the several states."
Such authority has long been broadly interpreted, including when imposing conditions on recipients, be they individuals or states.
Every student of government knows the Supreme Court has the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. The precedent-setting 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision remains a cornerstone of federal court authority, codifying the idea of separation of powers as an enduring hallmark of the American system of government.
That power has been used wisely -- judiciously, if you will -- over the years. The courts by their nature are reluctant to frustrate the will of the political branches, which are accountable directly to the people.
It is a message President Obama himself offered just days after oral arguments in the health care cases were completed.
"The point I was making is that the Supreme Court is the final say on our Constitution and our laws, and all of us have to respect it, but it's precisely because of that extraordinary power that the court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress," said the former law school professor. "And so the burden is on those who would overturn a law like this."
Some conservatives interpreted those and remarks the day before as political interference in an independent branch of government.
"The president crossed a dangerous line this week, and anyone who cares about liberty needs to call him out on it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said. "The independence of the court must be defended. Regardless of how the justices decide this case, they're answerable, above all, to the Constitution they swore to uphold. The fact that this president does not appear to feel similarly constrained to respect their independence doesn't change that one bit. So respectfully, I would suggest the president back off."
The justices themselves are not prepared to back off when they issue their decision. Nor are they likely as individuals to back into the political firestorm sure to follow. Their ruling will speak for itself -- however big, small, or confusing it may be. After that, the justices will again retreat largely from public view, to begin a three-month recess.