Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said Tuesday the state will join 20 others led mostly by Republican governors in suing to overturn the health care overhaul bill signed into law last month by President Barack Obama.
Calling it an "unprecedented exercise of congressional power," Parnell said Alaska would follow the other states in challenging the constitutionality of the mandate that people buy health care insurance or pay a fine.
"For the first time we now have a federal government dictating our economic activity," Parnell said. "Alaska will use the courts to fight this federal encroachment on our citizens."
Parnell announced the move Tuesday in Juneau with Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan, who released the memo his Department of Law wrote recommending the state sue the federal government. Parnell likened the federal plan's requirement that people purchase health care coverage as equivalent to forcing people to buy gym memberships to help lower their blood pressure.
The Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce. Alaska and the other states are arguing the mandate that individuals purchase insurance is unprecedented under the commerce clause, because uninsured individuals aren't participating in commerce.
Many constitutional law experts say that the health insurance mandate falls within the constitutional purview of Congress. They say there are plenty of other cases that show Congress has just as much authority to regulate economic inactivity as it does activity, said Stanford University Law School professor David Freeman Engstrom. It will be difficult for the Supreme Court to step away from those precedents, Engstrom said.
"There's lots of case law where Congress has regulated economic inactivity," Engstrom said. "It seems really unlikely that the court is going to stick its neck out and strike down a signal piece of social legislation by doing what many would say is charting a new constitutional path."
Parnell and Sullivan, though, said they believe the constitutional question at the heart of the multi-state suit is so important it overrides the urgency of covering more Alaskans. An estimated 100,000 people in the state are uninsured or can't access the Indian Health Service coverage they're entitled to as Alaska Natives.
"Health insurance at the price of freedom?" Parnell said. "No."
Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat and the only member of the state's congressional delegation to vote for the health care bill, called the lawsuit an expensive endeavor "of dubious merit." Parnell and Sullivan couldn't say how much the suit would cost Alaska, but Sullivan did say the Florida attorney general's office thought it would be about $5,000.
The projected cost has been higher in at least some other states that have joined the suit. The Idaho legislature estimated the state's participation would cost at least $100,000.
In a written statement, Begich suggested the cost would be much higher than $5,000.
"At a time when Alaska's unemployment rate is at record highs and families are struggling to make ends meet, the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell has decided to spend countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lawsuit of dubious merit which is unlikely to be successful," Begich said.
The decision for Alaska to join the suit drew praise from Parnell's Republican counterparts, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Young already has signed onto a Republican-backed House bill that would repeal the law.
"The health care legislation is absolutely unconstitutional, and joining in this lawsuit is the right thing to do for Alaskans," Young said.
Murkowski said she would look for ways to repeal what she called "the most egregious parts of the law" and replace them with proposals that will "rein in the spiraling costs of health care, such as junk lawsuit reforms and allowing insurers to sell across state lines."
"During the health care debate, I supported a measure that would have allowed states to 'opt out' of the health care plan," she said. "Unfortunately, the majority in the Senate chose not to give states that option."
State Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat running for Alaska governor, said he wished Parnell were taking a more constructive approach, such as explaining to Alaskans how health care will work for them.
"It's unfortunate the governor is taking this legally baseless route," French said. "It's posturing, I think, and it's going to be repudiated by the courts."
The three Republicans running against Parnell in August's gubernatorial primary all had a different take: They said Friday they thought Parnell had waited too long to make a move. Parnell's challengers -- Bill Walker, Ralph Samuels and Gerald Heikes -- all said Alaska should already have joined the states suing over health care.
Tuesday, Parnell said he wanted to proceed cautiously.
"I have opposed the federal health care legislation from Day 1," Parnell said. "I wanted to make sure we had done our homework when it comes to a constitutional challenge. Bottom line is, this is about our individual liberties."
The original lawsuit was filed in federal court by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, the Republican front-runner in the Florida governor's race. McCollum said Tuesday he welcomed Alaska to "the growing number of states that are standing up to protect the constitutional rights of their citizens."
Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Idaho, Louisiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Washington also joined the original suit. They were followed by Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Nevada and North Dakota. Virginia has a separate suit.
As in Alaska, McCollum's lawsuit has had ramifications in the governor's race in Florida. McCollum has been the front-runner in the race to replace Gov. Charlie Crist since August, but a Quinnipiac University poll conducted recently found that his plan to sue the federal government over health care was unpopular among independents.
Voters said 54-40 percent that it was a "bad idea'' to file a lawsuit challenging the plan. The Democrat in the race, Alex Sink, has drawn closer since McCollum announced plans to sue.