John O'Brien Jan. 31, 2011, 2:57pm
PENSACOLA, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - A federal judge in Florida has ruled that the mandate in President Barack Obama's health care reform law that requires individuals to purchase health insurance is unconstitutional.
Monday, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson released a 78-page decision that says the federal government is unfairly trying to regulate economic inactivity under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Vinson granted summary judgment on that issue to the 26 states that have challenged health care reform.
Vinson wrote that the lawsuit raised important issues concerning the Constitutional role of the federal government and included a quote from James Madison about government controlling itself.
"The Framers (of the Constitution) believed that limiting federal power, and allowing the 'residual' power to remain in the hands of the states (and of the people), would help 'ensure protection of our fundamental liberties' and 'reduce the risk of tyranny and abuse,'" he wrote.
"Very early, the great Chief Justice John Marshall noted 'that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the constitution is written.' Over two centuries later, this delicate balancing act continues."
Twenty states, led by Florida, filed the lawsuit in March after Obama signed the legislation into law. Recently, six states joined the effort.
The states are challenging a $695 annual penalty that will be imposed on individuals who do not purchase health insurance. Virginia, in a separate lawsuit, is defending a state law that says none of its residents can be penalized for not purchasing health insurance.
Virginia, like the states, was successful at the district court level. Both cases will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Because the mandate is too integral a part to be separated, Vinson voided the entire legislation. He called it "a difficult decision to reach."
"If Congress intends to implement health care reform --- and there would appear to be widespread agreement across the political spectrum that reform is needed --- it should do a comprehensive examination of the Act and make a legislative determination as to which of its hundreds of provisions and sections will work as intended without the individual mandate, and which will not," he added.
"It is Congress that should consider and decide these quintessentially legislative questions, and not the courts."
The federal government is arguing that Congress acted within its authority and that the mandate is vital to the success of the overall package.
"Even as to the uninsured, plaintiffs concede that Congress may require that they, too, obtain insurance at the point of procuring health care services, and quibble only that 'formalism' prevents the government from requiring insurance in advance of its use, thus claiming that Congress must turn a blind eye to the fact that in the aggregate, virtually everyone will at some point obtain medical services," the feds' motion says.
"This both misses the point of insurance - which is precisely to pay to cover services in advance of receiving them - and challenges the constitutionality of a broad federal statute based on its application to a subset of those who are regulated."
By not purchasing health insurance, an individual was actively deciding to pay his or her medical bills out of pocket, the federal government argued.
But Vinson did not agree. He ruled the mandate regulated inactivity in a marketplace, and wrote, "It would be a radical departure from existing case law to hold that Congress can regulate inactivity under the Commerce Clause."
And to allow otherwise would be dangerous, Vinson ruled. He pointed out that other jurists have opined on the threat of an overexpanded Commerce Clause.
"There is quite literally no decision that, in the natural course of events, does not have an economic impact of some sort," he wrote.
"The decisions of whether and when (or not) to buy a house, a car, a television, a dinner, or even a morning cup of coffee also have a financial impact that --- when aggregated with similar economic decisions --- affect the price of that particular product or service and have a substantial effect on interstate commerce."
In a footnote, he added, "As was discussed at the hearing, even personal decisions about whether to marry, whom to marry, or whether to have children could also be characterized as 'economic decisions.'"
The states had also argued that the legislation unfairly expanded Medicaid, resulting in higher costs for states. Vinson rejected this claim.
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at email@example.com.