A federal appeals court struck down as unconstitutional the central provision of President Barack Obama’s health-care law requiring most Americans get coverage, bringing the 2010 law ever-closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 2 to 1 ruling is in direct conflict with an earlier ruling by a federal appeals panel in Cincinnati, which upheld the individual mandate. The provision exceeds Congress’s power to regulate commerce, a U.S. appeals court panel in Atlanta ruled today, affirming a lower court in a lawsuit by 26 states.
“This economic mandate represents a wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority,” the majority wrote. The law requires “Americans to purchase an expensive health insurance product they have elected not to buy, and to make them repurchase that insurance product every month for their entire lives.”
A third federal appeals panel in Richmond, Virginia, has heard arguments in two cases brought over the health care law and has yet to rule. The U.S. Supreme Court often decides to accept cases where two or more of the federal appeals courts are in disagreement. Plaintiffs in the Cincinnati case have already asked the high court to review that ruling.
While throwing out the mandate, the Atlanta appeals panel overruled the lower court’s decision in that case to reject the entire health care law as a result.
“Excising the individual mandate from the act does not prevent the remaining provisions from being fully operative as a law,” the majority wrote.
Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, didn’t immediately reply to telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment on the ruling and whether the mandate provision will remain law if the government appeals. The mandate provision isn’t scheduled to take effect until 2014.
The U.S. may seek a rehearing by the three-judge panel, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit or petition the U.S. Supreme Court.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican, said in an e-mailed statement today that the “ruling by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upholds our position that the federal health care law exceeds Congress’ power,” she said.
Signed Into Law
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law on March 23, 2010. Then-Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum sued the same day on behalf of his state and a dozen others. Thirteen more states signed on later. The health-care act bars insurers from denying coverage to people who are sick and from imposing lifetime limits on costs. It requires almost all Americans 18 and over to obtain coverage.
The Atlanta court upheld portions of U.S. District Judge C. Roger Vinson’s ruling in Pensacola, Florida, that Congress exceeded its power in requiring that almost every American obtain insurance starting in 2014.
The U.S. has called the mandatory-coverage provision the linchpin of the statute because it will add younger and healthier people to the pool of the insured population, making the program viable for insurers.
Vinson on Jan. 31 ruled that Congress exceeded its powers under the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause when it created the requirement. Concluding that the mandate was integral to the rest of the legislation, he invalidated the entire act.
The Obama administration appealed Vinson’s ruling to the Eleventh Circuit. The three-judge panel, comprising two judges nominated by Republican President Ronald Reagan and one picked by Democratic President Bill Clinton, heard argument on June 8.
“The most difficult issue in the case is the individual mandate,” U.S. Chief Circuit Judge Joel Dubina, first nominated to the federal bench by Reagan in 1986, said at the start of the June 8 session in Atlanta. Reagan named U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus in 1985. U.S. Circuit Judge Frank M. Hull was a 1994 Clinton nominee.
“The question you have before you is that everyone is consuming the goods; it’s about failure to pay,” Acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal told the panel during the oral argument. The solicitor general is the Justice Department’s top courtroom attorney.
“The Commerce Clause only gives Congress the power to regulate, not to compel,” states’ attorney Paul D. Clement, a solicitor general under President George W. Bush, told the court later.
The Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in its 2-1 ruling on June 29, became the first appellate panel to rule in favor of the law. The court affirmed a Detroit federal judge’s decision last year to throw out a challenge by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, a Christian-based public interest law firm which has sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Not every intrusive law is an unconstitutionally intrusive law,” Jeffrey Sutton, the first Republican-appointed judge to back the law in litigation across the country, said in his majority opinion.
Lower-court rulings have broken entirely along party lines, with federal judges appointed by Republican presidents invalidating the mandate and those appointed by Democrats upholding it.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, on May 10 heard the Obama administration’s challenge to a lower court ruling that sided with Virginia attorney general Kenneth Cuccinelli, who filed a separate lawsuit on the same day as McCollum.
U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson, a Bush nominee, had struck down the individual mandate as unconstitutional while leaving the rest of the act standing.
The Richmond panel also heard an appeal by Lynchburg, Virginia-based Liberty University, which sought to reverse the another judge’s dismissal of its challenge to the law. That ruling was by Judge Norman K. Moon, who was selected by Clinton.
The appellate panel hasn’t yet rendered a decision.
The case is State of Florida v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 11-11021, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (Atlanta).