State attorneys general wasted no time filing legal challenges to President Obama’s healthcare reform law, swinging into action with legal filings in Florida and Virginia within minutes of the White House signing ceremony on Tuesday.
In Tallahassee, Fla., 12 attorneys general joined Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum in a 22-page complaint filed in federal court, charging that the new healthcare reform package exceeds Congress’s powers to regulate commerce, violates 10th Amendment protections of state sovereignty, and imposes an unconstitutional direct tax.
“This lawsuit should put the federal government on notice that Florida will not permit the constitutional rights of our citizens and the sovereignty of our state to be ignored or disregarded,” Attorney General McCollum said.
A second suit in Virginia
Virginia filed a similar lawsuit simultaneously in federal court in Richmond. That suit is slightly different in that it focuses in part on the clash between a recently enacted state law protecting the right of Virginia residents to refuse unwanted health insurance and the new federal law that imposes penalties on anyone who seeks to defy the national government’s command to purchase health insurance.
“Congress lacks the political will to fund comprehensive health care … because taxes above those already provided [in federal healthcare programs] would produce too much opposition,” the Virginia lawsuit says.
“The alternative, which was also a centerpiece of the failed Clinton administration health care proposal, is to fund universal health care in part by making healthy young adults and other rationally uninsured individuals cross-subsidize older and less healthy citizens,” the suit says.
The seven-page lawsuit presents a straightforward challenge to Congress’s decision to rely on its power to regulate interstate commerce to justify the federal mandate that every individual must have health insurance or pay a penalty.
“It has never been held that the Commerce Clause [of the Constitution] … can be used to require citizens to buy goods and services,” the suit says. “To depart from that history to permit the national government to require the purchase of goods and services would deprive the Commerce Clause of any effective limits.”
Aiming for the US Supreme Court
At a press conference in Florida, McCollum said his lawsuit is intended to move through the courts to the US Supreme Court. “I am confident the court is going to declare the new healthcare law unconstitutional,” he said.
Democratic leaders have downplayed any potential legal problems with the healthcare reform package. Many legal analysts agree with them. Others suggest the issue is open and could produce a landmark decision if the high court decides to take it up.
In addition to Florida, participating plaintiffs in the lawsuit include attorneys general from South Carolina, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Louisiana, Alabama, Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Washington State, Idaho, and South Dakota. The suing attorneys general are Republicans except James "Buddy" Caldwell of Louisiana, who is a Democrat.
The Florida-filed lawsuit identifies two victims. It says the new law infringes the liberty of individual state residents to choose for themselves whether to have health insurance. It also says the states themselves are victims of a federal power grab by leaders in Washington.
Worries about bigger Medicaid rolls
The new structure of the Medicaid portion of the healthcare bill – which deals with low-income Americans – leaves Florida with an offer it can’t refuse. The state can either opt out of Medicaid and leave millions of its most vulnerable residents uninsured, or opt in and surrender its authority to set priorities and run programs to an increasingly powerful national government.
Currently, Medicaid costs account for 26 percent of Florida’s annual budget. That is $18 billion for 2.7 million Medicaid recipients.
The suit says that, under the new law, Medicaid rolls in Florida are expected to increase dramatically. The corresponding soaring costs will fall increasingly on the Florida treasury, but state officials will have less authority to set priorities.
“[Florida] employees will be conscripted and forced to administer what now is essentially a federal Medicaid program for which Florida must bear a substantial cost,” the suit says.
Estimates are that the new law will impose additional costs on Florida ranging from $149 million in 2014 to more than a $1 billion by 2019.
The lawsuit says this amounts to an unconstitutional exercise of federal power that violates principles of federalism protected in the 10th Amendment. It says the healthcare reform bill commandeers the states and their employees as agents of the federal government’s regulatory scheme, and that it does so at the state’s own cost.
Another beef: an unconstitutional direct tax
The suit also says the tax penalty for noncompliance with the individual mandate to buy health insurance “constitutes a capitation and a direct tax that is not apportioned among the states according to census data, thereby injuring the sovereign interests of [the states].”
The tax penalty is unrelated to any taxable event or activity, the suit says. “It is to be levied upon persons for their failure or refusal to do anything other than to exist and reside in the United States,” the suit says.
This doesn’t just injure individuals who have a right to make healthcare decisions without government inference, the suit says. It also injures state governments who are forced to pay for the higher number of individuals coerced into enrolling in Medicaid.
Like the Virginia lawsuit, the Florida-filed suit also argues that Congress does not have the authority under the US Constitution to compel citizens to buy health insurance or punish them if they do not. An individual’s choice not to have health insurance is not “commerce” and thus does not fall within Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, the suit says.
A third lawsuit, in Michigan
In addition to the two state lawsuits, the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., filed a lawsuit in Michigan. It is filed on behalf of four individuals in southeastern Michigan who object to being forced to purchase healthcare coverage and who object to being forced to pay for abortions, contrary to their religious beliefs.
“Our Founding Fathers envisioned a limited form of government. The purpose of our Constitution and this lawsuit is to insure that it stays that way,” said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the law center, in a statement.
“Let’s face it, if Congress has the power to force individuals to purchase health insurance coverage or pay a federal penalty merely because they live in America, then it has the unconstrained power to mandate that every American family buy a General Motors vehicle to help the economy or pay a federal penalty.”