WASHINGON — A federal judge in Florida ruled on Thursday that a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care reform law may move forward in the courts. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 16.
US District Judge Roger Vinson upheld the two most important of six counts in a lawsuit filed on behalf of officials in Florida and 19 other states. The suit alleges that the controversial health-care law and its individual mandate requiring health insurance exceeds Congress’s power under the commerce clause and other constitutional provisions.
“At this stage of the case, the plaintiffs have most definitely stated a plausible claim,” Judge Vinson said about the commerce clause challenge.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is leading the states’ challenge to the law, said the ruling was an important victory. “It is the first step to having the individual mandate declared unconstitutional,” he said in a statement.
Supporters of the health-care measure said they were baffled that the judge had not tossed out the entire lawsuit.
“We are happy that Judge Vinson narrowed this lawsuit today, but what he really should have done is dismiss it altogether,” said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington.
The case, filed in federal court in Pensacola, is one of several lawsuits across the country challenging the president’s health-care reform effort.
Last week a federal judge in Michigan upheld the constitutionality of the law. On Monday, a federal judge in Virginia will hear arguments in a similar challenge.
Legal opponents of the health-care law are hoping the cases ultimately reach the Supreme Court.
At the heart of the lawsuits is the question of whether Congress has the power under the Constitution’s commerce clause to order Americans to purchase certain products – like federally-approved health insurance – or pay a fine.
Opponents of the health-care law say Congress has the power to regulate economic activity among the states. But they say rather than regulating economic activity, the health-care law seeks to regulate inactivity, which would expand congressional power beyond any prior recognized limits.
In upholding the law last week in a Michigan case, US District Judge George Steeh said the Supreme Court had consistently rejected claims that those who choose not to engage in commerce place themselves beyond the reach of the commerce clause.
“Plaintiffs in this [Michigan] case are participants in the health-care services market. They are not outside the market,” he said. “While plaintiffs describe the commerce clause power as reaching economic activity, the government’s characterization of the commerce clause reaching economic decisions is more accurate.”
Not a ruling on merits
In contrast to Judge Steeh, Vinson in Florida was not ruling on the merits of the case. His decision was addressing the government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The question before him was whether the plaintiffs had presented a valid claim.
Vinson said there are no legal precedents that definitively answer the question of whether Congress has the power to regulate economic inactivity.
In addition to the commerce clause challenge, the judge said he also would allow to move forward the states’ allegation that the new law violates the Constitution’s spending clause.
Under that charge, the states say that the new health-care law is forcing state governments to either participate in the new health care regime and pay higher Medicaid-related costs or pullout of Medicaid altogether and face financial ruin by losing all federal Medicaid payments for state residents. Federal Medicaid payments currently make up 26 percent of Florida’s state budget, the judge noted.
The states say this is no choice at all.
Vinson said the Supreme Court recognizes that the federal government can use its spending power to encourage the states to voluntarily participate in certain programs. But he said the high court has also suggested that there is a constitutional line that exists “somewhere between mere pressure and impermissible coercion.” Vinson said he would let the suit move forward to test the location of that line.
The judge also rejected arguments by government lawyers that the entire lawsuit must be dismissed because the health care measure imposed a tax. Under federal law, certain taxes are beyond the authority of the courts since they are enacted by the elected members of Congress who are themselves accountable to voters.
But Vinson said the health care mandate involved imposition of a penalty, not a tax. He quoted President Obama stating as such. And he said the law is written to support a penalty, not a tax.
Although he upheld the most important challenges in the lawsuit, the judge dismissed four counts in the suit. He rejected a challenge to the law’s requirement that states participate in health-care exchanges and that they enroll state employees in federally-approved insurance plans.
He also threw out a due process challenge to the measure, as well as a claim that the law amounted to an unconstitutional direct tax. The judge said the tax count was moot given his earlier decision that the law imposes a penalty, not a tax.
Timothy Sandefur, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, praised the ruling. He said the new health care law is “an unprecedented reach of federal power into people’s lives and private, personal decisions.”
He added: “Judge Vinson is correct that the individual mandate goes far beyond what the Founding Fathers intended as the role of the federal government, and far beyond anything that the Supreme Court has ever recognized or permitted.”
White House officials disagree. “Now that this preliminary stage has ended, the government fully expects to prevail on the merits,” said Stephanie Cutter, assistant to the president for special projects, in a statement. She quoted former Reagan administration Solicitor General Charles Fried as having written recently: “The health-care law’s enemies have no ally in the Constitution.”