Bench Memos

Obamacare Decision Clarified and Stayed, for Now

Judge Vinson of the Northern District of Florida ruled in January that the individual mandate of the new health-care law was unconstitutional and that the entire law must be struck down as a result. The federal government has spent the last month with its fingers in its ears, trying to find a way to continue implementing the law despite this ruling, which applies to over half the states in the nation. Today, Judge Vinson “clarified” his decision (scare quotes his own) while reiterating the already-clear lack of constitutional grounding for the law. 

Judge Vinson affirmed that the Obama administration’s arguments “could be used to require that individuals buy (under threat of penalty) virtually any good or service that Congress has a ‘rational basis’ to conclude would help the national economy, from cars to broccoli.” The only thing holding such an expansive legislature back would be the goodness of their hearts, which is a comfort only to those who are optimists enough to believe politicians as a class possess both goodness and hearts.

Judge Vinson seemed exasperated with the administration for insisting on clarification or even a full appeal before giving effect to his order, especially after they had insisted they would honor a declaratory judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. He went so far as to call their position “manifestly incorrect and inconsistent with well established statutory and case law.”

Vinson did throw a bone to the federal government: He construed their motion as a motion for stay as well (which they had indicated they were planning on filing), and granted a stay of his judgment. His stay was limited, though. He opined, “The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be,” and complained that the government seemed to be dragging its feet in the appeals process, having still not even filed a notice of appeal. 

I would suggest that their pace has been calculatedly slow: The longer the law is in effect, the harder some judges may find it to strike down the law, given the effort and money already put into implementation. (Not that those considerations should really be part of a judge’s constitutional analysis.) In order to encourage the government to move forward with due speed, Judge Vinson conditioned his stay on their filing an appeal within a week and seeking expedited review in the Court of Appeals or even taking the rare move of seeking Supreme Court review before the appeals process is complete. By granting a stay, Judge Vinson is doing his part to move the case forward toward resolution; the government would have requested — and likely received — a stay at the 11th Circuit anyway. Now they can skip that step and move on to the merits of the case.

In all, today’s ruling gives the Obama administration some breathing room and gives guidance to states trying to determine whether to keep spending their limited budgets on health-care implementation.

But, as Vinson himself notes, this reprieve is only temporary — Obamacare is still hanging in the balance at the Eleventh Circuit and eventually the Supreme Court.

Carrie Severino — Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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