Yesterday, a conservative district court judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan ruled that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional, arguing further that, since he believes the mandate is “inextricably linked” to the rest of the measure, the entire law must be unconstitutional. “The act, like a defectively designed watch, needs to be redesigned and reconstructed by the watchmaker,” Judge Roger Vinson wrote. The ruling, however, contradicts 14 other court decisions, the opinion of over 100 law professors, not to mention recent polling showing that Americans want the law to be either protected or expanded. There is also a distinctly political aspect to the ruling. Vinson acknowledged borrowing heavily in his opinion from a brief written by the right-wing group Family Research Council, and he seemed to give a shout-out to the Tea Party in his ruling, which has long targeted health care reforms as “economic Marxism.”
THE RULING: Vinson ruled that, “[i]f Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain.” However, as the Center for American Progress’ Ian Millhiser writes, “there is a long line of Supreme Court decisions holding that Congress has broad power to enact laws that substantially affect prices, marketplaces, or other economic transactions. Because health care comprises approximately 17 percent of the national economy, it is impossible to argue that a bill regulating the national health care market does not fit within Congress’s power to regulate commerce.” The Supreme Court has long held that Congress can exercise its constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce to regulate insurance, which the Court has stated “touches the home, the family, and the occupation or the business of almost every person in the United States.” A group of 35 economists — including three Nobel Prize winners — argue that the minimum coverage provision is “necessary to achieving Congress’ goal of reforming the national health insurance market and making quality medical care available to millions of Americans.” After finding the law unconstitutional, Vinson did not issue an injunction to halt the law’s implementation, but wrote that “the federal government should adhere to his declaratory judgment as the functional equivalent of an injunction.” This is quite confusing. It would be wise for states to wait for a Supreme Court ruling, but also under the Affordable Care Act, 12.5 million Americans are eligible to receive benefits right now — for example, three million seniors have already gotten checks to help make prescription drugs more affordable, and 1.8 million young adults who previously did not have insurance are able to get health coverage through their parents’ plan. Should these people immediately surrender their benefits because of Vinson’s ruling?
RED MEAT FOR THE RIGHT: There is undoubtedly a political context to Vinson’s ruling. Almost immediately following passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans began agitating for a full repeal. It was a major, stated goal of Republican and Tea Party candidates in the midterm elections, and the House of Representatives passed a repeal as soon as the GOP took control of the chamber. In the Senate, every Republican Senator has signed onto a repeal bill authored by Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). In his ruling, Vinson seemed to offer several nods to this far-right political movement. He referenced the “opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America,” which spoke directly to Tea Party activists across the country. “It’s very exciting. He’s invoking the tea party movement,” noted Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest tea party organizing groups. Vinson also “borrowed heavily” from the ultra-conservative Family Research Council in his ruling, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its extensive history of “defaming gays and lesbians.” Conservative media outlets were quick to amplify Vinson’s ruling. On Fox News this morning, Fox & Friends anchor Steve Doocy triumphantly noted for his audience that “we’ve argued on this program” that the individual mandate is “against the law.” Bill O’Reilly led his program last night with the news, and confidently predicted the Supreme Court would agree with Vinson: “say goodbye to Obamacare,” O’Reilly crowed.
A BUMP IN THE ROAD: Though Vinson’s reasoning seems to be faulty, there is potential for further rulings that would reinforce his view. The Department of Justice will appeal Vinson’s ruling, but the case will likely head to the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, “considered one of the country’s most conservative appellate benches.” (Hudson’s ruling in Virginia “is already with another conservative court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond.”) This is likely to ultimately reach the Supreme Court. However, Vinson’s reasoning seems to go against the findings of even conservative Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia. And while Vinson and Hudson issued high-profile rulings overturning health care reform, two other district court judges have upheld the law, and a total of 14 courts have found challenges to the individual mandate to be either without standing, or baseless. Also, more than 100 law professors recently signed a letter explaining that “the current challenges to the constitutionality of this legislation seek to jettison nearly two centuries of settled constitutional law.” In the past, when Congress has passed historic legislation, there have often been challenges — and victories for the challengers — in lower courts. But these have almost always been overturned by the Supreme Court. In United States v. Darby, the Supreme Court upheld a federal minimum wage and overruled a district court decision striking down federal child labor laws. In Helvering v. Davis, the Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals decision declaring Social Security unconstitutional. In Katzenbach v. McClung, the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on whites-only lunch counters — reversing a district court’s decision striking down this law. In Katzenbach v. Morgan, the Supreme Court reversed a district court decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. “Luckily, as Millhiser writes, Vinson’s decision is “heavy on rhetoric, light on actual legal reasoning and all but certain to be ignored by higher-court judges who understand their duty to follow the Constitution. … When Vinson is remembered 50 years from now — if anyone remembers him at all — he will be remembered as one of the long line of activist judges who stood athwart history and got run over by it.”