PENSACOLA, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - Outgoing Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is leading the charge in a multi-state lawsuit against federal health care reform, called the case "of pivotal importance" following a three-hour hearing on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, Florida was joined by 19 other states and the National Federation of Independent Business in the lawsuit, along with the federal government, in presenting their oral arguments in a federal court in Pensacola.
U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled in October that the suit could proceed.
Filed in March by McCollum, the lawsuit argues that requiring individuals to purchase health insurance or face a $695 yearly penalty is unconstitutional.
However, lawyers for the Justice Department say the insurance mandate is covered by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The clause gives Congress the power to regulate business that crosses state borders.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, Blaine Winship, special counsel for the Florida Attorney General, and outside counsel David Rivkin delivered the arguments for the plaintiffs. U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ian Gershengorn argued for the federal government.
At one point during Thursday's arguments, the Times noted, Vinson compared the law to a Swiss watch -- for it to function properly, all the gears must be in place.
McCollum said of the hearing, "Today, the states presented their argument that the individual mandate is unconstitutional and that the massive expansion of the Medicaid program under the new law coerces the states to spend their resources in a manner that vastly exceeds Congress' powers.
"This case is of pivotal importance to our Constitutional rights because Congress has limited, enumerated powers under the Constitution and beyond those specific powers, Congress cannot pass law," he said in a statement.
A federal court, McCollum said, has already ruled the individual mandate is unconstitutional, but no court has yet addressed the "substantial burden" the Medicaid expansion will place on state budgets and taxpayers.
"The states cannot just walk away from the Medicaid program, nor can the states refuse the Medicaid expansion and its tremendous costs," he said.
Those in support of the federal government argue the 20 states have tried to turn their voluntary participation in Medicaid into an involuntary and unconstitutional mandate by saying that they cannot stop participating in a program that provides medical coverage for millions of their residents.
Nonetheless, McCollum said he believes a ruling by a federal judge earlier in the week could bolster his and the other states' case.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson ruled in favor of Virginia, which filed its own lawsuit against the health care reform, granting Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's motion for summary judgment.
The state argued that requiring individuals to purchase health insurance or face a monetary penalty violates Virginia's Healthcare Freedom Act.
Hudson ruled that including the mandate and the annual penalty exceeded Congress' power. The judge also ruled that the penalty is not considered a tax, as argued by the federal government.
"Never before have we seen Congress intrude so far upon states' rights and individual liberty," McCollum said of the reform.
"This is public policy at the expense of our Constitution and the founding principles of our nation, and it is imperative that the states prevail in this suit."
According to the Times, Vinson said he would make a decision on the case as soon as possible, but did not provide a specific date.
However, as both sides have said before, the case most likely will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.