Bench Memos

Obamacare Declared Unconstitutional: Highlights from Judge Vinson’s Ruling

Although the fight against Obamacare took a significant step forward with the House’s recent repeal vote, today marks the biggest victory to date: Federal Judge Robert Vinson has ruled in a multi-state challenge to the health-care law not only that the individual mandate to buy health insurance is unconstitutional but that the entire 2,700-page law must fall. This ruling goes beyond the one made by Judge Hudson in the Virginia litigation, and further solidifies the argument that Obamacare greatly oversteps the bounds of Congress’s power.  Yes, Nancy Pelosi, these judges are serious about the Constitution.

Here are the highlights of today’s opinion:

The central holding is that neither the Commerce Clause nor the Necessary and Proper Clause provides authority for the federal government to require Americans to purchase health insurance against their will. The decision includes a thorough discussion of the history of Commerce Clause interpretation, illustrating how far we have strayed from the Founders’ concept of limited government. As Judge Vinson puts it,

It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place.

And yet that is essentially what the federal government argued it could do.

Following on his review of Commerce Clause jurisprudence, Judge Vinson identifies the key feature of the individual mandate that is decisive in this case: As far as we may have departed from the original interpretation of the Commerce Clause, those cases are not directly applicable because the federal government has never before attempted to actually mandate commercial activity in the first instance. In previous cases, “the individuals being regulated . . . had the choice to discontinue that activity and avoid penalty. . . . Here, people have no choice but to buy insurance or be penalized.” 

Judge Vinson rejected the federal government’s arguments that the alleged “uniqueness” of the health care market is constitutionally significant or that the act of deciding against purchasing a product transforms that non-purchase into regulable activity.

Judge Vinson also rejected the Necessary and Proper Clause as a source of authority to enact the individual mandate, stating that the federal government’s interpretation “would eviscerate the bedrock enumerated powers principle upon which the Constitution rests.” The Judicial Crisis Network is particularly gratified that Judge Vinson explicitly adopted the reasoning from our amicus brief on behalf of Speaker John Boehner, agreeing that the government’s interpretation would create a perverse incentive for Congress to craft defective legislation in order to justify glomming on unconstitutional “fixes” under the Necessary and Proper Clause.

The final big win for the plaintiffs was on severability: Having found the individual mandate unconstitutional, Judge Vinson determined that the whole statute could not be severed and must fall with it. While he acknowledged that this is not the typical result of a finding of partial unconstitutionality, he correctly observed that “this is anything but the typical case.” While many incidental portions of the law — regulating tanning salons or requiring that rooms be set aside for nursing mothers — could surely function without the individual mandate, Judge Vinson determined that making a line-by-line judgment of which sections of the 2,700-page law could stand on their own would involve quintessentially legislative decisionmaking far more invasive than striking down the statute in its entirety and letting Congress rewrite its own work as it sees fit. 

This decision is a great step forward for defenders of constitutional, limited government for the reasons given by the Supreme Court in New York v. United States and quoted in today’s opinion:

Much of the Constitution is concerned with setting forth the form of our government, and the courts have traditionally invalidated measures deviating from that form. The result may appear “formalistic” in a given case to partisans of the measure at issue, because such measures are typically the product of the era’s perceived necessity. But the Constitution protects us from our own best intentions: It divides power among sovereigns and among branches of government precisely so that we may resist the temptation to concentrate power in one location as an expedient solution to the crisis of the day. . . . [A] judiciary that licensed extra-constitutional government with each issue of comparable gravity would, in the long run, be far worse [than the crisis itself].


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