Like the farmer in that old gag about the proper management of mules, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson tried to be polite to the Obama Justice Department. On January 31, he ruled ObamaCare unconstitutional but stopped short of granting the plaintiffs in State of Florida v. U.S. Department Health and Human Services an outright injunction against further implementation. Instead, he awarded them “declaratory relief.” This, as Judge Vinson explained at the time, is the “functional equivalent of an injunction” because there is a presumption that “officials of the Executive Branch will adhere to the law as declared by the court.” In other words, the judge was asking them nicely to halt implementation of ObamaCare until the appeals process had run its course. Vinson failed to realize, however, that he was dealing with a particularly vicious specimen of that famously stubborn beast — the government mule.
And the beast remained true to form. The Obama administration made no effort to halt implementation of the unpopular health care law. In fact, the President and his health care bureaucrats openly declared their intention to move briskly forward with their plans to foist ObamaCare on an unwilling electorate. Moreover, when two states announced that they would treat the ruling as an injunction unless and until a higher court overruled the decision, the Department of Justice (DOJ) had the audacity to present Judge Vinson with a motion to clarify: “This motion respectfully asks the Court to clarify the scope of this order, in particular that its declaratory judgment does not relieve the parties to this case of any obligations or deny them any rights under the Affordable Care Act while the judgment is the subject of appellate review.” In effect, the DOJ asked Vinson to issue a stay against his own ruling.
The judge was not amused. In his request to the plaintiffs for an expedited response Vinson wrote, “Because I determined that the individual mandate could not be severed from the remainder of the Act, it was also necessary to declare the entire statute void. The defendants have now, two and one-half weeks later, filed a motion to ‘clarify’ that order.” Florida’s memorandum in opposition called the motion a “thinly disguised request for a stay,” and asked Vinson to deny it. And this is what most experts expected him to do. Indeed, many legal scholars wondered aloud why the DOJ would deliberately provoke a judge with a well-deserved reputation for irascibility. As Randy Barnett, law professor at Georgetown University, put it: “Having lost one game of chicken when it came to the severability of the mandate, the government is now challenging the same judge to back down on whether his decision is binding.”
However, instead of taking a two-by-four to the government mule in order to get its attention, Vinson did indeed issue a stay against his previous ruling: “After careful consideration of the factors noted above, and all the arguments set forth in the defendants’ motion to clarify, I find that the motion, construed as a motion for stay, should be GRANTED.” This was not, however, an unalloyed victory for the Obama administration. The judge made his stay conditional on the Justice Department’s expeditious pursuit of an appeal to his January ruling that ObamaCare is unconstitutional. Noting that it is in the country’s best interests to have this matter resolved quickly he wrote, “[T]he stay will be conditioned upon the defendants filing their anticipated appeal within seven (7) calendar days of this order and seeking an expedited appellate review, either in the Court of Appeals or with the Supreme Court …” In other words, the Justice Department must file an appeal by March 10.
And the wording of Judge Vinson’s order makes it clear that he was not taken in by the pretext behind the DOJ’s motion: “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 …” He then “clarifies” key points in his original ruling: “The individual mandate was declared unconstitutional. Because that ‘essential’ provision was unseverable from the rest of the Act, the entire legislation was void.” He then discusses what he meant to accomplish when he granted declaratory relief to the plaintiffs: “This declaratory judgment was expected to be treated as the ‘practical’ and ‘functional equivalent of an injunction’ with respect to the parties to the litigation.” Finally, he points out what he did not intend: “It was not expected that [the administration] would effectively ignore the order… then file a belated motion to ‘clarify.'”
All of which begs the following question: Why, then, did he not apply the two-by-four?! It is already blindingly obvious that this particular beast does not respond to reason. This was clearly demonstrated by the utter contempt with which the administration treated Vinson’s January order. And such behavior is by no means limited to the various ObamaCare challenges. Even as the administration pressed Judge Vinson to force states to implement a health care law he had pointedly ruled unconstitutional, the President and his Attorney General declared their intention to ignore the Defense of Marriage Act. Barack Obama and Eric Holder obviously believe that they, rather than the Constitution and the courts, are the ultimate arbiters of a law’s validity. And their behavior in State of Florida v. U.S. Department Health and Human Services suggests that they hold similar views concerning judicial rulings.
It is to be hoped that, having been given a second chance to comply with a ruling from the U.S. District Court Northern District of Florida, the Obama administration will depart from its usual pattern of mulish obstinacy. However, yesterday’s statement from the DOJ’s Deputy Director of the Office of Public Affairs contains an unmistakable note of defiance: “We strongly disagree with the district court’s underlying ruling in this case.… There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing the Affordable Care Act.” This is nonsense, of course. The only “clear and well-established” precedent associated with ObamaCare involves the stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to remain within its constitutional limits. Will this obstinacy end without a firm application of the two-by-four to the government mule’s occiput? We’ll know in seven days.