Most Serious Health-Care Challenge Marches Forward

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On Thursday, a federal judge in Florida ruled that a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the health care law can move forward. U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson allowed two of the suit's challenges to proceed: 1) that Congress exceeds its authority with the "individual mandate" that requires almost all Americans to buy insurance, and 2) that the expansion of Medicaid compromises state sovereignty. The suit was brought by the governors and attorneys general of 20 states, and a summary judgment hearing to discuss its merits will be held in December.

  • A Case to Watch  There are currently about a dozen legal challenges to the health care law percolating through the justice system (one was struck down in Michigan last week), but The Washington Post notes that this case "could shape up to be one of the most serious." Politico calls it "the highest-profile challenge."

  • Reasons for the Ruling  It was Vinson's opinion that the fee on people who don't comply with the individual mandate amounts to a penalty, rather than a tax. Since Congress only has the power of taxation, Vinson ruled that the challenge to this part of the law was legitimate. Furthermore, he upheld the challenge to the expansion of Medicaid, since, as the Los Angeles Times's Jon Healey explains, "the law seemed to give states a Hobson's choice... either shoulder the burdens imposed by the expansion or stop participating in the Medicaid program altogether, sacrificing all the federal aid it provides to provide healthcare to the poor."

  • Judge to Dems: Don't Play 'Alice in Wonderland' Games   Is the individual-mandate fee a penalty or a tax? Obama's allies in the government have argued both positions at different times, which earned them a rebuke from Vinson. "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," he wrote.

  • What Happens Next?  Timothy Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee University, told Talking Points Memo that while Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee, seems sympathetic to the plaintiffs' case, it's also worth noting that he threw out four of the suit's six charges. Tracy Schmaler, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, pointed out that "this case is in the early stages of litigation" and that "while we are disappointed that the Court did not dismiss the entire case... we remain confident that the law ultimately will be upheld." For his part, Vinson maintains that it's still an open question: "To say that something is 'novel' and 'unprecedented'"--like the individual mandate, in other words--"does not necessarily mean that it is 'unconstitutional' and 'improper.' There may be a first time for anything."

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