Last month’s ruling by a federal judge in Virginia that part of the health care reform law is unconstitutional and hints from another judge in Florida that he may issue a similar decision have set the stage for a long legal battle.


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Courts divided over constitutionality of health reform law

January 3rd, 2011

NEW YORK – Last month’s ruling by a federal judge in Virginia that part of the health care reform law is unconstitutional and hints from another judge in Florida that he may issue a similar decision have set the stage for a long legal battle.

The ruling by Judge Henry Hudson of Federal District Court in Richmond that the health care measure’s requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance exceeded the regulatory authority granted to Congress under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause marked the first time a judge has invalidated any part of the reform law.

The opinion contradicted two prior rulings that the requirement that everyone be insured was constitutionally sound.

Despite finding the provision violated the Commerce Clause, Hudson declined a request to suspend the act’s implementation pending appeal, meaning there should be no immediate effect on its rollout.

“Neither the Supreme Court nor any federal circuit court of appeals has extended Commerce Clause powers to compel an individual to involuntarily enter the stream of commerce by purchasing a commodity in the private market,” the judge wrote in his 42-page opinion. Allowing Congress to exert such authority, he said, “would invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers.”

Hudson is the third district court judge to rule on the merits of a challenge to the health care law. Nearly two dozen other lawsuits are still pending.Last year judges in Detroit and Lynchburg, Va., upheld the law. Those cases are now before appellate courts.

Lawyers say appeals to the three decisions already issued and the others that are likely to follow could last about two years before the Supreme Court settles the dispute.

A few days after Hudson’s decision, Judge Roger Vinson of Federal District Court in Pensacola, Fla., ended a three-hour hearing on a suit filed by attorneys general and governors from 20 states by saying the law’s requirement that most Americans obtain insurance would be “a giant expansion” of the court’s traditional application of the Commerce Clause.

Proponents of the reform law say the insurance mandate, which is not scheduled to go into effect until 2014, is central to the legislation’s mission of covering more than 30 million people who are uninsured.

Insurers support that position, saying that only by requiring healthy people to have policies can they afford to pay for those with expensive conditions.

Hudson’s ruling, Vinson’s leaning toward agreeing that requiring everyone to be insured was unconstitutional and the two earlier decisions that contradicted those opinions underscore the political battle that has been spawned by the passage of the law last year.

So far, judges appointed by Republican presidents have ruled consistently against the Obama administration, while Democratic appointees have found for it.

The Richmond case was filed by Virginia’s Republican attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli II, and all but one of the 20 attorneys general and governors who filed the case in Pensacola are Republicans.

With the constitutionality of the health care reform law almost certain to be decided by the Supreme Court, legal scholars have been reviewing the high court’s rulings on the Commerce Clause.

They note that the Court’s position has evolved through four signature cases over the last 70 years. Three of those opinions have been issued since 1995. Two of the opinions — one in 1942 and the other in 2005 — created broad federal powers to regulate even personal commercial decisions. But the two other decisions — in 1995 and 2000 — limited Congress’s regulatory authority to “activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.”

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