Health law takes another hit; judge rules it unconstitutional

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 31, 2011 

WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Florida sided Monday with 26 states to declare President Barack Obama's health care overhaul unconstitutional, emboldening congressional Republicans, who are vowing to repeal what they've dubbed "Obamacare" before the Supreme Court weighs in.

The Obama administration will appeal the ruling, and White House aides said they'd continue with plans to implement the law in phases between now and 2014.

In a 78-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson says the portion of the law that requires individuals to obtain health insurance exceeds Congress' powers under the Commerce Clause, in part because it attempts to regulate inactivity rather than activity.

Since the individual mandate is the "keystone or linchpin" of Obama's health law, Vinson also ruled that it and all the other provisions of the law "are all inextricably bound together in purpose and must stand or fall as a single unit." Vinson, whom President Ronald Reagan named to the bench, wrote that he'd reached his decision "reluctantly."

"This has been a difficult decision to reach, and I am aware that it will have indeterminable implications," Vinson said. "At a time when there is virtually unanimous agreement that health care reform is needed in this country, it is hard to invalidate and strike down a statute titled 'The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.' "

Obama deputy senior adviser Stephanie Cutter, in a White House blog posting, called the ruling "a plain case of judicial overreaching" and "well out of the mainstream of judicial opinion."

Vinson's ruling follows last December's ruling by U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson in Virginia, who found the individual mandate unconstitutional, and federal rulings last fall in Michigan and another Virginia district that supported the mandate.

Vinson's ruling is broader because 26 states signed on to the Florida case and because he's rejecting not just the individual mandate but also the entire overhaul. The law includes provisions that cover people who have pre-existing conditions, young adults up to age 26 on their parents' plans, seniors, small businesses, Medicaid recipients and others.

Democratic leaders and consumer and family advocacy groups who supported the overhaul criticized the ruling as political and predicted that it would be overturned.

Ethan Rome, the executive director of Health Care for America Now, said the ruling was a gift to GOP governors and attorneys general who were friendly to private insurance companies. Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA, called it "radical judicial activism run amok." The American Public Health Association's executive director, Georges C. Benjamin, said the ruling posed an "enormous" risk to millions of Americans.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "there is little doubt the Supreme Court will be the final arbiter of this constitutional question."

Opponents of the health care overhaul, meanwhile, celebrated.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel for the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, called the ruling "an unqualified victory for the Founders' framework of principled, limited government."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, applauded the message that "the federal government should not be in the business of forcing you to buy health insurance and punishing you if you don't."

Two Senate Republicans, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Barrasso of Wyoming, said they'd introduce legislation to let states opt out of the mandate and other provisions of the law.

The House of Representatives recently voted, largely on party lines, to repeal the law.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is vowing to follow. Because Democrats control 53 of 100 Senate seats, a full legislative repeal appears unlikely. Republicans also are considering ways to dismantle the law piece by piece or withhold the funds needed to implementing it.

But there are political considerations for both parties.

Some provisions are widely popular with Americans, especially those that would prevent insurers from dropping, refusing to cover or exorbitantly charging people with pre-existing conditions, even as Americans dislike the idea of a mandate.

Obama adviser Cutter, in her blog post, acknowledged the difficulty of making the rest of the overhaul work without a mandate. She said that "unless every American is required to have insurance, it would be cost prohibitive to cover people with pre-existing conditions."

(Tony Pugh contributed to this article.) ON THE WEB

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