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Health-care reform: US judge allows Florida's challenge to Obama

Saying opponents of President Obama's health care reform law 'have most definitely stated a plausible claim,' a federal judge in Florida allows the key elements of the lawsuit to proceed.

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“Plaintiffs in this [Michigan] case are participants in the health-care services market. They are not outside the market,” he said. “While plaintiffs describe the commerce clause power as reaching economic activity, the government’s characterization of the commerce clause reaching economic decisions is more accurate.”

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Not a ruling on merits

In contrast to Judge Steeh, Vinson in Florida was not ruling on the merits of the case. His decision was addressing the government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The question before him was whether the plaintiffs had presented a valid claim.

Vinson said there are no legal precedents that definitively answer the question of whether Congress has the power to regulate economic inactivity.

In addition to the commerce clause challenge, the judge said he also would allow to move forward the states’ allegation that the new law violates the Constitution’s spending clause.

Under that charge, the states say that the new health-care law is forcing state governments to either participate in the new health care regime and pay higher Medicaid-related costs or pullout of Medicaid altogether and face financial ruin by losing all federal Medicaid payments for state residents. Federal Medicaid payments currently make up 26 percent of Florida’s state budget, the judge noted.

The states say this is no choice at all.

Vinson said the Supreme Court recognizes that the federal government can use its spending power to encourage the states to voluntarily participate in certain programs. But he said the high court has also suggested that there is a constitutional line that exists “somewhere between mere pressure and impermissible coercion.” Vinson said he would let the suit move forward to test the location of that line.

The judge also rejected arguments by government lawyers that the entire lawsuit must be dismissed because the health care measure imposed a tax. Under federal law, certain taxes are beyond the authority of the courts since they are enacted by the elected members of Congress who are themselves accountable to voters.

But Vinson said the health care mandate involved imposition of a penalty, not a tax. He quoted President Obama stating as such. And he said the law is written to support a penalty, not a tax.

Although he upheld the most important challenges in the lawsuit, the judge dismissed four counts in the suit. He rejected a challenge to the law’s requirement that states participate in health-care exchanges and that they enroll state employees in federally-approved insurance plans.

He also threw out a due process challenge to the measure, as well as a claim that the law amounted to an unconstitutional direct tax. The judge said the tax count was moot given his earlier decision that the law imposes a penalty, not a tax.

Timothy Sandefur, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, praised the ruling. He said the new health care law is “an unprecedented reach of federal power into people’s lives and private, personal decisions.”

He added: “Judge Vinson is correct that the individual mandate goes far beyond what the Founding Fathers intended as the role of the federal government, and far beyond anything that the Supreme Court has ever recognized or permitted.”

White House officials disagree. “Now that this preliminary stage has ended, the government fully expects to prevail on the merits,” said Stephanie Cutter, assistant to the president for special projects, in a statement. She quoted former Reagan administration Solicitor General Charles Fried as having written recently: “The health-care law’s enemies have no ally in the Constitution.”