Federal Judge: Health Care Law Individual Mandate Unconstitutional
A Federal Judge in Richmond, Virginia has handed the Obama Administration its first defeat in the various lawsuits that have been filed challenging the Constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act with a ruling declaring the requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance to be beyond Congressional authority under the Constitution:
A federal district judge in Virginia ruled on Monday that the keystone provision in the Obama health care law is unconstitutional, becoming the first court in the country to invalidate any part of the sprawling act and ensuring that appellate courts will receive contradictory opinions from below.
Judge Henry E. Hudson, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, declined the plaintiff’s request to freeze implementation of the law pending appeal, meaning that there should be no immediate effect on the ongoing rollout of the law. But the ruling is likely to create confusion among the public and further destabilize political support for legislation that is under fierce attack from Republicans in Congress and in many statehouses.
In a 42-page opinion issued in Richmond, Va., Judge Hudson wrote that the law’s central requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance exceeds the regulatory authority granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The insurance mandate is central to the law’s mission of covering more than 30 million uninsured because insurers argue that only by requiring healthy people to have policies can they afford to treat those with expensive chronic conditions.
The judge wrote that his survey of case law “yielded no reported decisions from any federal appellate courts extending the Commerce Clause or General Welfare Clause to encompass regulation of a person’s decision not to purchase a product, not withstanding its effect on interstate commerce or role in a global regulatory scheme.”
Judge Hudson is the third district court judge to reach a determination on the merits in one of the two dozen lawsuits filed against the health care law. The others — in Detroit and Lynchburg, Va. — have upheld the law. Lawyers on both sides said the appellate process could last another two years before the Supreme Court settles the dispute.
In this particular case, the next step on the appellate ladder would be the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which has generally had a reputation of being among the more conservative Courts of Appeal. However, Virginia’s Attorney General has reportedly been mulling the idea of applying to the Supreme Court to leave to bypass the Court of Appeals and proceed directly to the final state of the appellate process. Even if such an application were made, there’s no guarantee it would be granted so the the case may end up in the 4th Circuit anyway, but this strikes me as mistake. It seems to me that a final hearing before the Supreme Court might have a better shot, for Virginia, if it had other rulings against the law from other Courts behind it.
In any event, it’s clear that the Federal Government was unable to overcome much of the initial skepticism that Judge Hudson expressed about the arguments in favor of the mandate in his ruling on the government’s Motion to Dismiss. On the Commerce Clause, Hudson ruled that the requirement that American citizens purchase health insurance or face a penalty to exceed even the relatively liberal bounds of Congressional authority as set forth in case likes Wickard v. Filburn and Gonzalez v. Raich and that failure to act cannot itself be considered an act occurring within interstate commerce. On the government’s backup argument that the mandate and it’s penalty are justified under Congress’s far broader authority to tax for the “general welfare,” Hudson essentially ruled that the taxing power cannot be used to accomplish a purpose not authorized under the specific grants of power given to Congress under Article I, Section 8, and that the Attorney General’s argument is undercut by the fact that both Congress and the President specifically denied during the build up to passage of the Affordable Care Act that the mandate was a tax (a relevant fact because it goes to the question of Congressional intent).
Finally, rather than declaring the entire ACA unconstitutional, Hudson’s decision merely enjoins enforcement of the individual mandate. However, given the fact that mandate is the centerpiece of the entire regulatory scheme, it is hard to see how the rest of the law could survive without it.
This case is obviously going to be appealed, but it’s nonetheless a victory for Virginia, and it’s noteworthy as one of the few times in recent memory that a Court has said to Congress — no, you can’t do that. For that reason alone, it’s a good thing.
Here’s the full text of the opinion: