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A federal judge in Florida voided the entirety of the nation's new health care law Monday, declaring that the Congress overstepped its constitutional authority last year when it mandated individual health insurance coverage by 2014. For the Obama administration, it was the second adverse ruling from the federal courts in just the past seven weeks and presaged a new round of legal appeals and political wrangling over the controversial health care initiative.
In a 78-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, a 1983 appointee of President Reagan from the Northern District of Florida, wrote that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 violated both the "Commerce Clause" and the "Necessary and Proper" clause of the Constitution because it sought to federally regulate inactivity -- the individual choice not to purchase health insurance. Judge Vinson wrote:
"It would be a radical departure from existing case law to hold that Congress can regulate inactivity under the Commerce Clause. If it has the power to compel an otherwise passive individual into a commercial transaction with a third party merely by asserting -- as was done in the Act -- that compelling the actual transaction is itself 'commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce,' it is not hyperbolizing to suggest that
Congress could do almost anything it wanted."
Judge Vinson continued: "It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America, would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place. If Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain for it would be 'difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power' and we would have a Constitution in name only (citations omitted)."
The judge declared that he could not separate out the "individual mandate" provision of the new law from its other components and thus struck down the entire law -- a first from the federal courts since passage of the act last year. However, Judge Vinson refused to enjoin the enforcement of those provisions in the act which, unlike the individual mandate, already have taken effect, including provisions which allow adult children to remain under their parents' insurance. Those provisions presumably will remain in force pending a final resolution of the legal dispute over the act.
The Justice Department issued the following statement following the ruling: "We strongly disagree with the court's ruling today and continue to believe -- as other federal courts have found -- that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. This is one of a number of cases pending before courts around the country, including several that the government has won in the district courts that are now before the courts of appeals. There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing this law and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail on appeal."
With Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum taking the lead, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of several states just hours after President Barack Obama signed the measure into law on March 23, 2010. Since that time, additional states have joined the litigation (four joined earlier this month) and now 26 are part of what constitutes the most serious legal challenge to the health care measure.
Earlier Monday, each of the Republican senators declared they were ready to repeal the act. Following the ruling, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case late last year, said: "This health care law remains a major source of uncertainty for small businesses, which is why all parties involved should request that this case be sent to the U.S. Supreme Court for a swift and fair resolution."
Last month, as a result of another lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson, an appointee of President George W. Bush, sitting in Virginia, declared portions of the new act unconstitutional but stopped short of the sweeping scope of Judge Vinson's ruling. Two other judges, meanwhile, both appointees of Democratic presidents, have ruled the comprehensive new law a valid exercise of congressional power.
The dispute, which in the Florida case now moves to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, almost certainly will have to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this month, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, in an unrelated case the Court rejected for argument, expressed concerns about what they called an expanded view of congressional power under the Commerce Clause.
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