President Barack Obama’s administration is set to argue that its signature Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act be allowed to continue despite a Florida judge’s decision that a part of the law is unconstitutional.
Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida ruled in late January that the law’s individual mandate, which would require most Americans to buy health insurance by 2014, is unconstitutional because it exceeds the federal government’s power to oversee interstate commerce (the “Commerce Clause”).
But Vinson fell short of stopping the law’s implementation immediately, as requested by plaintiff Pam Bondi, the attorney general of Florida, and government lawyers later asked Vinson to clarify whether he meant to immediately halt the reform effort. The plaintiffs argued that the judge clearly meant to do just that; federal attorneys had until today to respond, with Vinson promising his response "promptly," according to The Hill’s Healthwatch blog.
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 healthcare reform.
Beginning in 2014, Americans will have to prove they have health insurance or fines ranging from $95 to $695 by 2016 (or 2.5 percent of taxable income, whichever is greater), according to Healthwatch.