Today’s decision by Judge Vinson is another stinging defeat for the administration in its defense of Obamacare. Defenders of the health care bill had tried to paint any legal challenge as “frivolous.” When then-Speaker Pelosi was asked by a reporter “where specifically does the Constitution grant Congress the authority to enact an individual health insurance mandate,” Pelosi responded incredulously, “Are you serious? Are you serious?” To wit, Judge Vinson offered a serious response, striking down not only the mandate, but the whole of the health care bill.
In a 78-page opinion, Judge Vinson dissects the two major claims at issue in this case: whether Obamacare violates the spending clause, particularly the coercion principles announced in South Dakota v. Dole, and whether the mandate to purchase health insurance violates the Commerce Clause.
On the first claim, Judge Vinson sided with the administration. In the second, he offered a detailed analysis of the law which reads like a treatise. Rather than picking and choosing his cases, as many proponents of Obamacare like to do, he went through all of the relevant case law at length before concluding that the mandate violated the Commerce Clause. He correctly observed that “it would be a radical departure from existing case law to hold that Congress can regulate inactivity under the Commerce Clause.” He then concluded that “the individual mandate and the remaining provisions are all inextricably bound together in purpose and must stand or fall as a single unit. The individual mandate cannot be severed.” As such, he appropriately struck down the entire law. Today’s decision should be a major source of concern for the Obama administration for at least five reasons.
First, the parties involved. This case involves a majority of the states (26), and the National Federation of Independent Business. If not completely unprecedented, the very fact that more than half the states marched into federal court on behalf of themselves and their citizens to challenge an unconstitutional federal program falls into the category of “beyond any recent memory.” The sheer magnitude of the parties involved guarantees that the courts on appeal will pay particular attention to this case.
Second, the case creates a very bad trend for the administration. Those courts which have taken the time to more fully develop the record in the case, and to have more briefing and hearings (Virginia and Florida), have ruled Obamacare unconstitutional. This is important because, contrary to the White House spin, litigation is not a scoreboard. It is not enough to say that you have won some and lost some. Some district court wins “count” more, because they are more indicative of what is likely to come next. Here, the cases the administration has lost have been better developed, have significant and sophisticated parties, and are in a better position for appeal than the more cursory cases that they have won at more preliminary stages.
Third, the case strikes down the whole of Obamacare based on the unconstitutionality of the mandate. The administration has tried to have it both ways on this one, with the President and key proponents arguing how essential the mandate is, while the Justice Department arguing at times that it was absolutely essential, and at times that it was severable. If the DOJ really wanted to keep the bill severable, perhaps they should not have argued in court that removing the mandate while maintaining the remaining requirements of the bill would “inexorably drive [the health insurance] market into extinction.” Those who would falsely accuse the Judge of overstepping his bounds must recognize both the standards for severability, which he properly applied, and the damning concession made on this point by the Justice Department.
The fourth problem for the Obama DOJ: Judge Vinson’s decision is thorough, well-reasoned, and likely will be very persuasive to appellate judges, and eventually Justices, who review the case. He was judicious, ruling against the states on the spending clause claim and for them on the Commerce Clause. The most important document in any appeal is the decision below, and Judge Vinson’s will give the court of appeals much to consider. Put simply, Vinson has just made the Obama DOJ’s job much more difficult.
The fifth problem, the Judge granted declaratory relief to the parties, which includes 26 states. Because the entire act was struck down, the future requirements to expand Medicaid programs will be suspended, at least as to these 26 states, and these states will be relieved of their obligation to make plans for such expansion in the immediate future. At a time when many states face insolvency, the removal of this burden is welcome news. The Obama administration, rather than fight the relief for these 26 states, should extend it to all 50 until the case is finally resolved.