Judge Rules Health Care's 'Individual Mandate' Unconstitutional

Health care reform dealt first blow in courts

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President Obama's health care law--a cornerstone of the White House's legislative agenda--has suffered a major legal setback after a federal district judge in Virginia ruled Monday that requiring most Americans to purchase health insurance by 2014 is unconstitutional. Judge Henry E. Hudson, a Bush appointee, concluded that the so-called "individual mandate," requiring individuals to purchase health insurance, exceeds Congress's authority to regulate commerce.

The ruling will not interfere with the implementation of the law but is likely to "create confusion among the public and further destabilize political support for legislation that is under fierce attack from Republicans in Congress and in many statehouses," The New York Times reports. The judge indicated that his ruling applies only to the individual mandate and related provisions of the law.

Reactions are flooding in:

  • Judge's Leanings Were Known, But Ruling Still Striking, observes Kevin Sack at The New York Times: "Only nine months ago, prominent law professors were dismissing the constitutional claims as just north of frivolous."
  • Classic Example of Judicial Activism, says liberal Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly:
[Hudson] rejected a common legal standard to overturn a congressionally-approved law to reach an ideological outcome ... For those keeping score, there have now been three federal court rulings, two won by supporters of reform, one won by opponents. Reinforcing the notion of a politicized process, the two victories were delivered by judges appointed by Democratic presidents, while today's ruling was issued a Bush appointed jurist with a long history of Republican activism in Virginia.
  • Judge Owns Piece of GOP Consulting Firm! exclaims John Cook at Gawker. Cook notes that Hudson has a monetary stake in Campaign Solutions, which campaigned against health care reform. "If you're curious why Hudson ... ruled that health care reform's individual coverage mandate violates the constitution," Cook continues, "it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he as a major shareholder in a political messaging firm that gets paid to argue that health care reform's individual mandate is unconstitutional. It's really just that he's a Republican."
  • Ruling Reaffirms That Federal Government's Power Is Limited, declares Jonathan Adler at The Volokh Conspiracy: "The theories advanced by the federal government in support of the mandate were without bounds and could have justified virtually unlimited federal control of private activity." He approves of the decision. "Reforming America's health care system is important, but just like everything else, from national security to environmental protection, it must be done in a way that's consistent with constitutional principles."
  • Ruling Doesn't Highlight True Threat to Health Care Reform, states Ezra Klein at The Washington Post, adding that it's not Judge Hudson but rather Supreme Court Justice and perennial swing vote Anthony Kennedy who will have the last word, when the case reaches the high court:
The real danger to health-care reform is not that the individual mandate will be struck down by the courts. That'd be a problem, but there are a variety of ways to restructure the individual mandate such that it doesn't penalize anyone for deciding not to do something (which is the core of the conservative's legal argument against the provision) ... The danger is that, in striking down the individual mandate, the court would also strike down the rest of the bill.
  • The Supreme Court Will Likely Uphold The Decision, says Tom Dutton, head of Jones Day's health care practice, per The Wall Street Journal's round-up of opinion from the legal community: "If the individual mandate is indeed unconstitutional, then hopefully an appellate court will hold the entire law unconstitutional (as the Virginia Attorney General requested) because the individual mandate is the economic lynch-pin to the law."
  • No, The Ruling Won't Stand on Appeal, counters Elizabeth Wydra, Chief Counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center, in the same Wall Street Journal roundup:
The requirement that individuals maintain a minimum level of health insurance coverage or pay a tax penalty falls squarely within Congress’s constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, including actions -- such as the decision not to buy health insurance--that substantially affect interstate commerce.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.