DOJ wants clarification on health care law ruling

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 18, 2011, 2:00pm

PENSACOLA, Fla. (Legal Newsline) -- The U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the Obama administration, filed a motion for clarity on Thursday in response to a federal judge's recent ruling that the new health care law is invalid.

In its accompanying 17-page memorandum, the federal government said the court's declaratory judgment "potentially implicates hundreds of provisions of the (Patient Protection and Affordable Care) Act and, if it were interpreted to apply to programs currently in effect, duties currently in force, taxes currently being collected, and tax credits that may be owed at this time or in the near future, would create substantial uncertainty.

"Because of the sweeping nature of the declaratory judgment, such an interpretation would pose a risk of substantial disruption and hardship for those who rely on the provisions that have already been implemented."

On Jan. 31, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson released a 78-page decision that said 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.

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 wrote.

"It is Congress that should consider and decide these quintessentially legislative questions, and not the courts."

The federal government argues that Congress acted within its authority and that the mandate is vital to the success of the overall package.

In its motion Thursday, it asks that the court "clarify the scope of its order, in particular that its declaratory judgment does not relieve the parties to this case of any obligations or deny them any rights under the Affordable Care Act while the judgment is the subject of appellate review, or, if the Court anticipated otherwise, to address specifically what the Court intends the parties' obligations and rights to be under the judgment while appellate review is pending."

Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business' Small Business Legal Center, said the federation is "disappointed that the government apparently is not complying with Judge Vinson's order."

"The government's claim of uncertainty only underscores that this case must proceed quickly to the 11th Circuit and then ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. Until the U.S. Supreme Court rules, small business owners and all Americans will be left questioning whether or not this law will stand," she said in a statement.

"The best remedy to alleviate that uncertainty is for the appeal to move forward as quickly as possible."

The federation, which describes itself as the voice for small business owners, added its name to the Florida lawsuit challenging the health care law in May.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at

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