The federal judge in Florida who ruled the healthcare reform act unconstitutional scolded the Obama administration on his way to issuing a seven-day stay so federal lawyers can appeal his decision.
Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida called his Jan. 31 ruling that Obamacare’s individual mandate is unconstitutional and invalidates the healthcare reform law “the functional equivalent of an injunction.”
Vinson also chided the administration for continuing to implement the law and for taking too long to either file its appeal or ask him for clarification of his initial ruling. That decision found that the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty starting in 2014 violates the Constitution. Federal lawyers then asked Vinson to clarify his ruling, prompting the plaintiffs (26 states and a trade group) to argue that he clearly meant to stop healthcare reform in its tracks. Obama’s attorneys countered by arguing that many of the states in the suit collected money from the healthcare reform law with one hand while challenging it in court with the other.
Vinson was stinging in his response today, granting a seven-day window for the Justice Dept. to file an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, but questioning federal lawyers’ acumen.
“While I believe that my order was as clear and unambiguous as it could be, it
is possible that the defendants may have perhaps been confused or misunderstood
its import,” he wrote. “So to ‘clarify’ my order and judgment: The individual mandate was declared unconstitutional. Because that ‘essential’ provision was unseverable from the rest of the act, the entire legislation was void.
“To the extent that the defendants were unable (or believed that they were unable) to comply, it was expected that they would immediately seek a stay of the ruling, and at that point in time present their arguments for why such a stay is necessary, which is the usual and standard procedure,” Vinson continued. “It was not expected that they would effectively ignore the order and declaratory judgment for two and one-half weeks, continue to implement the act, and only then file a belated motion to ‘clarify.'”
But the stay comes with a condition: The Obama administration must ask the 11th Circuit for an expedited review of its appeal, in order to hasten it on its way to the Supreme Court.
“The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be,” Vinson wrote. “And yet, it has been more than one month from the entry of my order and judgment and still the defendants have not filed their notice of appeal.”
Obamacare supporters and foes alike were quick to highlight how the stay helps their side. Plaintiff the National Federation of Independent Business called the order for an expedited review “very good news,” according to The Hill’s Healthwatch blog.
“We strongly agree and are confident Judge Vinson’s decision finding the entire law to be unconstitutional will prevail,” NFIB executive director Karen Harned said.
Pro-reform Families USA, citing the 3-2 split among federal judges in favor of the healthcare reform law, said Vinson was right not to pull the plug before the issue is heard in higher courts.
“It would have been bizarre and inappropriate for one judge to halt implementation of the entire law while appeals continue,” Families USA director Ron Pollack said in prepared remarks.
Although the administration can claim to be ahead 3-2 in court challenges to its landmark achievement, after Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a challenge last week, it might not matter in the long run.
That’s because all of the judges who have weighed in so far have agreed on one thing: The individual mandate is a penalty, not a tax. The matter, expected to land on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket next year, could hinge on that distinction. Congress has the power to enact taxes, not penalties, leaving an opening for the Supremes to strike down the mandate and fatally wound Obamacare.
Beginning in 2014, Americans will have to prove they have health insurance or pay fines ranging from $95 to $695 by 2016 (or 2.5 percent of taxable income, whichever is greater).