In a rigorously reasoned decision that seemed to delight in turning the government’s arguments on their head, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson on Monday in Pensacola, Fla., struck down as unconstitutional President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
In the lawsuit brought by 26 states, Vinson found that “Congress exceeded the bounds of its authority” by including the individual mandate, and held the entire act unconstitutional “because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable” from the rest of the law.
Vinson, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Florida, even tweaked Obama, pointing out in a concluding footnote that the president whose name is forever linked to the measure had backed a health care reform bill without an individual mandate when he was in the Senate. Vinson quoted then-Sen. Obama as saying in 2008 that “if a mandate was the solution, we can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody buy a house.”
Vinson said the government even conceded that its interpretation of the Commerce Clause to support the individual mandate “breaks new legal ground” and is “unprecedented.” He concluded, “If it has the power to compel an otherwise passive individual into a commercial transaction with a third party … it is not hyperbolizing to suggest that Congress could do almost anything it wanted. It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place.”
Vinson also turned the government’s logic that the mandate is not severable from the rest of the legislation on its head. On one hand, the government maintained the mandate couldn’t be severed from the rest of the bill because it was essential to the operation of the entire health care reform program. But then the government also argued that the mandate was severable because the 2,700-page bill contained many provisions only tangentially related to health care.
Severing the mandate was also impossible, Vinson said, because he would then have to rule on how doing so affected each of the hundreds of provisions in the law. Doing that, Vinson argued, would require him to exceed his own authority as a judge by acting as a legislature.
Ultimately, these issues will likely be decided by the nine justices of the Supreme Court — unless the 112th Congress beats them to it. The House already has voted to repeal the measure, and in the Senate, all 47 Republicans have co-sponsored Sen. Jim DeMint’s bill to do the same. With public opinion running strongly against Obamacare, several Senate Democrats may join them in voting for its demise.