Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder

Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder (White House file photo / June 3, 2009)

The Justice Department obeyed a federal appeals court's unusual order Thursday in a legal and political spat over the health care law championed by President Barack Obama.

Administration lawyers met their deadline and filed a three-page, single-spaced letter -- following the specific instructions of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is hearing a challenge to the health care law.

The letter affirmed the government's stance that federal courts indeed have the authority to decide the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act -- and any other law Congress passes.

"The power of the courts to review the constitutionality of legislation is beyond dispute," said the letter, signed by Attorney General Eric Holder.

It added that the Justice Department "has not in this litigation, nor in any other litigation of which I am aware, ever asked this or any other court to reconsider or limit long-established precedent concerning judicial review of the constitutionality of federal legislation."

Referring to comments by Obama that set off the imbroglio, the letter concluded: "The President's remarks were fully consistent with the principles described herein."

A dispute involving the court and the executive branch has elevated the political stakes over whether the law will survive various legal challenges, including a pending a Supreme Court decision. The high court's ruling, expected in June, would take precedence over any other courts hearing similar appeals.

The latest dispute surfaced Monday when the president said, "I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically-elected Congress and I just remind conservative commentators that for years, what we've heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a dually constituted and passed law."

Some conservative critics interpreted those remarks as a challenge to judicial authority, suggesting Obama was putting political pressure on the high court, which is expected to issue its ruling on the constitutionality of the health care by June.

Toobin: Court's Obama order a 'hissy fit'

The White House tried to defuse the ideological firestorm Wednesday, saying the president's words were misunderstood.

A day after the president's remarks, the three judges, Republican appointees from the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, held a hearing on a challenge to the health care law from physician-owned hospitals, despite the pending Supreme Court ruling.

Judge Jerry Smith, a Reagan appointee, was especially tough on a Justice Department lawyer defending the law and specifically mentioned the Obama quotes.

"I'm referring to statements by the president in the past few days to the effect, and 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 to, of course, Obamacare -- to what he termed broad consensus in majorities in both houses of Congress," Smith said.

"That has troubled a number of people who have read it as somehow a challenge to the federal courts or to their authority or to the appropriateness of the concept of judicial review," Smith continued. "And that's not a small matter. So I want to be sure that you're 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."

Government lawyer Dana Lydia Kaersvang appeared initially taken aback, but replied such authority has existed for centuries.

Nevertheless, Smith and Judges Emilio Garza and Leslie Southwick then ordered the Justice Department to submit by 1 p.m. ET Thursday Texas time a three-page, single-spaced letter addressing whether the Obama administration believes courts do indeed enjoy that power.

In a sign of the political nature of the imbroglio, Smith's phrasing in open court of the law as "Obamacare" used a term coined by opponents of the law.

The specific issue before the appeals court was a provision in the health care law restricting doctor-owned hospitals from expanding their facilities. The challenge was brought by an East Texas spine-and-joint hospital.

Later Tuesday, Obama clarified his remarks from the day before on the issue, saying: "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. And so the burden is on those who would overturn a law like this."