Judge declares Obama health-care law 'void' in its entirety

A federal judge in Florida rules that the health-care law passed by Congress last year is unconstitutional. Three other federal judges have also ruled on the health-care law – one against, two in favor – setting up a potential Supreme Court showdown.

Ben Twingley/Pensacola News Journal/AP
Senior US District Judge Roger Vinson speaks to candidates for citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at the US District Court in Pensacola, Fla., in this July 27, 2007 photo. Vinson declared the Obama administration's health-care overhaul unconstitutional Monday.

A federal judge in Florida ruled on Monday that President Obama’s health-care reform law exceeds Congress’s authority under the Constitution’s commerce clause.

US District Judge Roger Vinson declared the 2,700-page reform measure “void” in its entirety, while concluding that the law’s individual mandate requiring all Americans to buy a government-approved level of health insurance was a “bridge too far.”

“The individual mandate falls outside the boundary of Congress’s commerce clause authority and cannot be reconciled with a limited government of enumerated powers,” Judge Vinson wrote.

The action, if upheld on appeal, means that Congress would have to return to the drawing board to draft a significantly different version of health-care reform.

Vinson is the second judge to strike down the health-care law’s individual mandate requiring all Americans who can afford it to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.

Two other judges have upheld the constitutionality of the health-care reform law.

The conflicting rulings have set the stage for legal battles in the federal appellate courts and perhaps, eventually, at the US Supreme Court.

26 states sued

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed on behalf of Florida and 25 other states challenging the constitutionality of the health-care reform law. Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives voted 245 to 189 to repeal the law. But the Senate is not expected to follow suit, and President Obama would almost certainly veto any repeal law passed by Congress.

Meanwhile, court challenges are continuing.

The central question in the case was whether Congress has the power to order Americans to purchase a private product or service.

The Constitution’s commerce clause provides the authority for Congress to “regulate commerce … among the several states.” But does the power to pass regulations affecting interstate commerce authorize a federal order that Americans must purchase health insurance or pay a penalty?

During a Dec. 16 hearing in Pensacola, Fla., Vinson questioned whether Congress could force the nation to eat broccoli or to buy shoes. Others have questioned whether federal lawmakers have the authority to order citizens to buy a particular brand of car as a form of economic stimulus.

Lawyers defending the health-care statute say there is a significant difference between broccoli and health insurance. If no one eats their broccoli the government will not be forced to pick up the tab, they say. In contrast, the individual mandate is a way to regulate the costs of health-insurance across the country, they say.

Inactivity as economic activity

Vinson disagreed. He said under the commerce clause, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, Congress is empowered to regulate economic activity, but not inactivity.

“If [Congress] has the power to compel an otherwise passive individual into a commercial transaction with a third party,” the judge wrote, “it is not hyperbolizing to suggest that Congress could do almost anything it wanted.”

The judge rejected arguments by the government that an individual’s decision not to buy health insurance is, itself, an activity with economic consequences that the federal officials can regulate.

“Every person throughout the course of his or her life makes hundreds or even thousands of life decisions that involve the same general sort of thought process that [government lawyers] maintain is ‘economic activity,’ “ the judge said. “There will be no stopping point if that should be deemed the equivalent of activity for commerce clause purposes.”

'A defectively designed watch'

In striking down the entire law, Vinson said he felt it should be up to Congress rather than a judge to determine which portions of the statute – other than the stricken individual mandate – should remain in the reform measure.

“This act has been analogized to a finely crafted watch,” Vinson said. “It has approximately 450 separate pieces, but one essential piece (the individual mandate) is defective and must be removed.”

He added: “The act, like a defectively designed watch, needs to be redesigned and reconstructed by the watchmaker.”

The three earlier decisions upholding and overturning the health-care bill are currently on appeal before the Fourth and Sixth US Circuit Courts of Appeals. Vinson’s decision is expected to be appealed to the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

After that, any or all of the cases, could be appealed to the Supreme Court.

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