A federal appeals court judge on Tuesday seemed to take offense to comments President Barack Obama made earlier this week in which he warned that if the Supreme Court overturned his signature health care overhaul it would amount to overreach by an "unelected" court.
The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling later this year on whether to strike down some or all of the historic health care law.
During oral arguments in Houston in a separate challenge to another aspect of the federal health care law, U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jerry Smith said Obama's comments troubled a number of people who have read them as a challenge to the authority of federal courts.
"I'm referring to statements by the president in the past few days to the effect, I'm sure you've heard about them, that it is somehow inappropriate for what he termed unelected judges to strike acts of Congress that have enjoyed, he was referring of course to Obamacare, to what he termed a broad consensus and majorities in both houses of Congress," Smith told Dana Kaersvang, an attorney with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
On Monday, Obama issued a direct challenge to the Supreme Court, saying he didn't believe the high court would take the "unprecedented" step of overturning a law passed by a strong majority of Congress.
"I want to be sure that you are telling us that the Attorney General and the Department of Justice do recognize the authority of the federal courts through unelected judges to strike acts of Congress or portions thereof in appropriate cases," Smith said.
A somewhat surprised Kaersvang told Smith the Justice Department does recognize this power by the courts and made reference to a landmark 1803 case that formed the basis for judicial review.
However, Smith ordered Kaersvang to submit a letter to the appeals court by Thursday stating the position of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department on the concept of judicial review.
"The letter needs to be at least three pages, single spaced, no less and it needs to be specific. It needs to make specific reference to the president's statements," Smith said.
The case before the appeals court was brought in part by a spine and joint hospital in East Texas that is challenging the constitutionality of a portion of the health care law that restricts physician-owned hospitals from expanding or building new facilities.
The Justice Department did not immediately return a telephone call late Tuesday seeking comment.
White House officials had no comment on Smith's statements, instead referring to comments Obama made earlier Tuesday at the annual meeting of The Associated Press in Washington.
At the meeting, Obama said the Supreme Court "is the final say on our Constitution and our laws, and all of us have to respect it. ... I have enormous confidence that in looking at this law, not only is it constitutional, but that the Court is going to exercise its jurisprudence carefully because of the profound power that our Supreme Court has."
Associated Press writer Will Lester in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.