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Bench Memos

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More on the Obamacare Ruling



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Obama, Harry Reid, and company were hoping for something to brighten up a gloomy election season. But their hopes were dashed by Judge Vinson yesterday, because Obama’s signature “achievement” remains under a cloud of constitutional suspicion. Judge Vinson of the Northern District of Florida just handed down his ruling on the government’s motion to dismiss the 20-state challenge to Obamacare, and he was receptive to the central claims of the state and private plaintiffs that the individual mandate is beyond Congress’s enumerated powers under the Constitution.

I just finished a quick first read of the 65-page opinion, and here are the main take-away points:

1. Judge Vinson is clearly sympathetic to the case against the individual mandate. When asked whether there is a plausible argument against Obamacare to allow the suit to proceed, he answered that, “[a]t this stage in the litigation, this is not even a close call” and noted that “[t]he power that the individual mandate seeks to harness is simply without prior precedent.” 

2. The Obama administration attempted to downplay the mandate by arguing that the government has used its Commerce Clause powers to force people to take action in the past. But the court took issue with their assertion by noting that people have always been able to opt out of regulation of any industry by simply not taking part in it — until now, that is. As Judge Vinson stated:

The individual mandate applies across the board. People have no choice and there is no way to avoid it. Those who fall under the individual mandate either comply with it, or they are penalized. It is not based on an activity that they make the choice to undertake. Rather, it is based solely on citizenship and on being alive.

3. The opinion also identified the underlying hostility of this administration to recognizing constitutional limits on its power whenever it bumps up against expediency:

For many people, including many members of Congress, [health care] is one of the most pressing national problems of the day and justifies extraordinary measures to deal with it. However, “a judiciary that licensed extraconstitutional government with each issue of comparable gravity would, in the long run, be far worse.”

4. The judge also rejected the government’s incredibly far-reaching argument that the health-care law should in actuality be considered a tax because its penalties raise revenue. Normally, Congress and the White House seek to hide their tax increases by calling them something else. But here, the administration is rushing to call it a tax because that would have subjected it to looser constitutional scrutiny than regular laws. The court viewed this characterization as a bait-and-switch:

Congress should not be permitted to secure and cast politically difficult votes on controversial legislation by deliberately calling something one thing, after which the defenders of that legislation take an “Alice-in-Wonderland” tack and argue in court that Congress really meant something else entirely, thereby circumventing the safeguard that exists to keep their broad power in check.

 

5. The final surviving claim is that Obamacare’s broad expansion of Medicare will force the states to take on impossible financial costs because failure to participate in the scheme would eliminate the significant portions of state health-care budgets that are currently paid for with federal funds. Although the court was less optimistic about the ultimate success of this claim, it acknowledged that under relevant Supreme Court precedent “there is a line somewhere between mere pressure and impermissible coercion,” and since there is not applicable Eleventh Circuit precedent stating where that line falls, the states could ultimately prevail on this claim.

Plaintiffs’ core arguments survived the motion to dismiss, and the judge’s statements suggest that plaintiffs may have even more success in their summary judgment motion, due November 4. It appears that in the fight between Obamacare and the principle of limited government, round one goes to freedom.



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