CINCINNATI (Legal Newsline) - A federal appeals court has ruled President Barack Obama's health care reform package is constitutional, becoming the first such court to weigh in on the issue.
Two members of a three-judge panel sided with the federal government's argument that it is not unconstitutional to charge a $695 annual penalty to individuals who do not purchase health insurance. The challenge to Obama's law came from the Thomas More Law Center.
The federal government had also been successful at the district court case, though it received unfavorable decisions in two cases involving state attorneys general - one a 26-state lawsuit in Florida and another from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
The respective appeals courts have not decided those challenges yet.
"In my opinion, the government has the better of the arguments," Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote before adding the courts of appeal "are not just fallible but utterly non-final in this case."
"Congress could reasonably conclude that the decisions and actions of the self-insured substantially affect interstate commerce," Sutton added. "In choosing how to regulate this group, Congress also did not exceed its power. The basic policy idea, for better or worse (and courts must assume better), is to compel individuals with the requisite income to pay now rather than later for health care.
"Call this mandate what you will - an affront to individual autonomy or an imperative of national health care - it meets the requirement of regulating activities that substantially affect interstate income."
Judge James Graham dissented, writing that if the mandate is upheld it will be difficult to find the limits on Congress' Commerce Clause authority.
"Such a power feels very much like the general police power that the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states and the people," he wrote. "A structural shift of that magnitude can be accomplished legitimately only through constitutional amendment."
His dissent was in line with decisions by district judges Henry Hudson of Virginia and Roger Vinson of Florida.
In January, Vinson found that Congress was unconstitutionally regulating economic inactivity and, because the mandate is too integral a part to be separated, he voided the entire legislation. He called it "a difficult decision to reach."
In his ruling, Vinson wrote, "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."
"It is Congress that should consider and decide these quintessentially legislative questions, and not the courts."
The issue will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at email@example.com.