Justice Department lawyers are preparing to defend the constitutionalityof the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s most celebrated legislative achievement. The arguments, to begin Tuesday morning, mark the first time a challenge to the health care law has been heard by a federal appeals court.

Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal will argue that the law makes health care coverage widely available, protects consumers from insurance industry underwriting practices, and reduces the cost of uncompensated care that was previously borne by those with health insurance.

But critics say the law is unconstitutional. They say that Congress exceeded its authority when it passed the main provision of the law that requires an individual to buy health insurance by 2014 or face a tax penalty.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hear two cases, one brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the other by Liberty University, a private Christian school.

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