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Health-care reform: Battleground shifts to Florida courtroom

The legal battle over health-care reform is destined for the Supreme Court, analysts say. On Thursday a US district judge in Florida hears arguments in a case brought by 20 states.

By Staff writer / December 15, 2010

Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli speaks about the ruling from US District Judge Henry E. Hudson that declared the foundation of President Barack Obama's health care law unconstitutional, Monday. A district judge in Florida will hear a case brought against the health-care reform bill on Thursday, but many say the final decision will be made by the supreme court.

Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP

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The escalating legal battle over the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care reform law moves Thursday to Florida and to a federal judge who has already expressed skepticism about the statute.

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In October, US District Judge Roger Vinson dismissed four of six counts in the Florida-based lawsuit challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But in upholding two other counts, the judge appeared receptive to arguments questioning the constitutional validity of the health-care law.

“At this stage of the litigation, this is not even a close call,” Judge Vinson wrote in his opinion. “The power that the individual mandate seeks to harness is simply without prior precedent.”

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The judge’s comment was made while declining to dismiss the lawsuit at an early stage. It does not necessarily telegraph how he might rule when considering the full merits of the issue.

On Thursday, Judge Vinson will become the fourth federal judge to formally examine the constitutionality of the health-care reform law. Two judges – in Detroit and Lynchburg, Va. – have upheld the law. On Monday, a judge in Richmond, Va., ruled a key section of the law unconstitutional.

The rulings are setting the stage for what legal analysts predict will be an eventual showdown at the US Supreme Court.

The primary issue raised in all four cases has been the reform law’s so-called individual mandate requiring that every American purchase a government-approved level of health insurance or pay a penalty.

Expanding the pool

The measure is aimed at expanding the number of healthy individuals in the insurance risk pool to help pay for government reforms, including the requirement that individuals with preexisting health conditions may not be refused coverage.

The Florida-based challenge to the reform law is being mounted by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and 19 other states. The plaintiffs also include the National Federation of Independent Businesses and two individuals.

Their case against the Obama reform bill involves two main issues. They charge that Congress exceeded its authority under the Constitution’s commerce clause by mandating that every American must purchase private health insurance.

The lawsuit also seeks to invalidate the law on grounds that it exceeds Congress’s authority under the Constitution’s spending clause. They argue that the law’s requirement that states significantly expand Medicaid coverage is an unconstitutional form of coercion and commandeering, forcing states to take expensive actions they would prefer to avoid.

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