Monday, December 13, 2010

Judge Voids Key Part of Health Care Law

A federal district judge in Virginia ruled on Monday that the keystone provision in the Obama health care law is unconstitutional, becoming the first court in the country to invalidate any part of the sprawling act and ensuring that appellate courts will receive contradictory opinions from below.

Judge Henry E. Hudson, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, declined the plaintiff’s request to freeze implementation of the law pending appeal, meaning that there should be no immediate effect on the ongoing rollout of the law. But the ruling is likely to create confusion among the public and further destabilize political support for legislation that is under fierce attack from Republicans in Congress and in many statehouses.

In a 42-page opinion issued in Richmond, Va., Judge Hudson wrote that the law’s central requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance exceeds the regulatory authority granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The insurance mandate is central to the law’s mission of covering more than 30 million uninsured because insurers argue that only by requiring healthy people to have policies can they afford to treat those with expensive chronic conditions.

The judge wrote that his survey of case law “yielded no reported decisions from any federal appellate courts extending the Commerce Clause or General Welfare Clause to encompass regulation of a person’s decision not to purchase a product, not withstanding its effect on interstate commerce or role in a global regulatory scheme.”

Judge Hudson is the third district court judge to reach a determination on the merits in one of the two dozen lawsuits filed against the health care law. The others — in Detroit and Lynchburg, Va. — have upheld the law. Lawyers on both sides said the appellate process could last another two years before the Supreme Court settles the dispute.

The opinion by Judge Hudson, who has a long history in Republican politics in northern Virginia, continued a partisan pattern in the health care cases. Thus far, judges appointed by Republican presidents have ruled consistently against the Obama administration while Democratic appointees have found for it.
Read the rest here.

A couple of quick points. First this ruling is contradicted by two others from different courts. Secondly the opponents of this legislation have been filing suits all over the country in an effort to find a judge who would side with them. So there is no great surprise here. This is going to the Supreme Court. Anything preceding that is just laying the groundwork and massacring whole forests for all of the legal paperwork.

In short, the bold headlines notwithstanding; this ruling is legally very near meaningless.


G Sanchez said...

While you are certainly correct that the ruling won't stand as the final answer on the health care bill, it is hardly meaningless.

First, if no district court accepted the challenge made in the Virginia case, the chances that a federal court of appeals or the Supreme Court would hear (to say nothing about siding with) the ruling would shrink considerably. At the very least thid lsys the groundwork for what will more likely than not become a Supreme Court case.

Second, district court rulings are not inconsequential. The plaintiffs now have some real ammunition in their arsenal and the ruling will probably be used as a persuasive authority in other challenges. Also, it sends a signal to other courts that there are grounds for invalidating some (perhaps not all) of the health care bill. Without predicting what effect this will definitely have on other challenges, the anti-health care position, from a legal point of view, just received a shot in the arm of credibility.

Third, if public sentiment against the health care bill continues to climb, other courts will be sensitive to that fact when it comes time for them to decide what to do. Again, all of this may still come down to what the Supreme Court chooses to do, but if there are several decisions handed down which strike at the health care bill, the Court may be more inclined to accept some of their logic in its own decision.

And, all of this aside, I would recommend people actually read the decision before drawing any wild conclusions. The A.C. brief filed by Randy Barnett and the Cato Institute contains powerful arguments against the health care bill--arguments which demand to be taken seriously. But maybe I'm naive. The Constitutional text hasn't done much to withstand purposeful ignorance since at least the New Deal.

gdelassu said...

I think that Orin Kerr (a thorough-going libertarian and critic of the Pres Obama's reforms) made a good point when he said that this ruling does not really engage with the case law. It simply assumes the very point in contention in this suit. I would not care to lay odds one way or the other how the Supreme Court will eventually rule on this question (like others, I am nearly certain that the Court will take up one of these facial challenges to the new law), but I feel fairly confident that this ruling will not be particularly influential to the outcome when the Court does eventually consider the ACA's constitutionality.