Dealing a blow to the Obama administration, a federal Judge on Monday ruled that the requirement that individuals purchase health insurance -- a central component of the national health care law -- "exceeds the constitutional boundries of congressional power."
In a 42-page ruling (PDF), U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson, an appointee of George W. Bush, said that the Commerce Clause of the constitution did not give the federal government the authority to force an individual to purchase something. He also rejected the Obama administration's argument that the mandate to purchase "minimum essential coverage" was justified by Congressional taxing power. At the same time, Hudson declined to overturn the entire law, severing the mandate from the rest of the legislation.
The decision arose from a lawsuit brought by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, one of the two main legal challenges to ObamaCare. The other one is led by Florida and involves 19 additional states.
"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," Hudson wrote. "In doing so, enactment of the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision exceeds the Commerce Clause powers vested in Congress under Article I."
The judge went on to say that, "Because an individual's personal decision to purchase -- or decline to purchase -- health insurance from a private provider is beyond the historical reach of the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause does not provide a safe sanctuary...The Minimum Essential Coverage Provision is neither within the letter nor the spirit of the Constitution. Therefore, the Necessary and Proper Clause may not be employed to implement this affirmative duty to engage in private commerce."
The Obama administration had also advanced a secondary argument that the mandate could be justified under the Congress's power to levy and collect taxes. Yet Hudson said this argument didn't hold up, because the revenue collection element is incidental to the mandate -- it's a penalty and its primary purpose is as a regulatory enforcement mechanism. Also, the legislation itself cited the Commerce Clause as its constitutional justification.
Hudson did rule against Virginia on two other counts, though. As enacted, the law did not include what's known as a "severability clause," which specifies that if one part of the law is struck down, the rest of the law stands. Virginia had argued that it should be struck down entirely if the mandate is considered unconstitutional, but Hudson declined to do so, saying the Court didn't have sufficient information to determine "what, if any, portion of the bill would not be able to survive independently."
Hudson also declined to grant Virginia's request for an injunction against the mandate, because it has not yet gone into effect.
The judge acknowledged that "the final word will undoubtedly reside with a higher court."
It should be noted that in two other lower profile cases, liberal judges have upheld the health care law. So ultimately, it's likely that this will end up having to be decided by the Supreme Court, with Anthony Kennedy, as always, casting the deciding vote.
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