Health Care Law Struck Down

By Kenneth Jost
CQ Press Supreme Court Editor

President Obama has suffered the first legal blow to his health-care reform law with a ruling by a federal judge in Virginia striking down the act’s central provision requiring all Americans to have health insurance.

In a 42-page ruling released Monday (Dec. 13), U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson in Alexandria said that the individual health insurance mandate—also called the “minimum essential coverage provision”—went beyond Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.

“Neither the Supreme Court nor any federal circuit court of appeals has extended Commerce Clause powers to compel an individual to involuntarily enter the stream of commerce by purchasing a commodity in the private market,” Hudson wrote in Virginia ex rel Cuccinelli v. Sebelius. “In doing so, enactment of the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision exceeds the Commerce Clause powers vested in Congress under Article I [of the Constitution].”

Hudson left the other parts of the law intact, but Republican opponents of the ruling hailed the ruling and called on the Obama administration to join in asking for an expedited appeal to the Supreme Court. From the opposite side, supporters of the law said the ruling would undermine other provisions of the act imposing new requirements on health insurers and ultimately raise insurance rates across the board.

In a posting on the White House blog, presidential assistant Stephanie Cutter said the administration “disagrees” with what she called Hudson’s “narrow” ruling. She also predicted that the challenges would ultimately fail. “In the end,” Cutter wrote, the “Affordable Care Act will prevail and the American people will enjoy the benefits of reform.”

The ruling, in a suit by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, represented the Obama administration’s first setback in defending the health care law, formally called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Federal judges in Detroit and Lynchburg, Va., had earlier rejected similar challenges to the individual insurance mandate; a dozen other suits had been dismissed on technical legal grounds.

Hudson, a former Republican prosecutor appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush, had clearly signaled his doubts about the individual insurance mandate in August by refusing to dismiss Cuccinelli’s suit. A separate suit brought by Florida and the National Federation of Independent Businesses has also survived a preliminary motion to dismiss. U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson, a Republican appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, is scheduled to hear arguments on Thursday (Dec. 16) in that case, Florida v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hudson’s ruling would normally be appealed to the intermediate level Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But Cuccinelli, a Republican elected as Virginia’s top law enforcement officer in November 2009, said he would seek to bypass the Fourth Circuit and move the appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican slated to become House Majority Leader after the GOP gains control in January, called on the Obama administration to join in seeking an expedited high court ruling. He also vowed to press Republican efforts to pass what he called “a clean repeal of Obamacare” in the next Congress.

Supporters of the law denounced Hudson’s ruling. In a conference call with reporters, Neera Tanden, chief operating officer of the liberal Center for American Progress, said the decision could force health insurers to raise rates. “Without a minimum-coverage provision, rates will increase because people will wait until they’re sick to get insurance,” Tanden said.

Tim Jost (no relation), a health law expert at Washington and Lee University Law School in Lexington, Va., and a supporter of the law, said it was “very unlikely” that the Supreme Court would agree to the unusual procedure of hearing the appeal directly from a district court. He noted that under the law, the health insurance mandate is not scheduled to take effect until 2014.

Under a normal schedule, the high court would likely get the case sometime during the term that begins in October 2011. A ruling would then be likely in June 2012, in the midst of a presidential election year.

For background, see these CQ Researcher reports (subscription needed): Kenneth Jost, “States and Federalism,” Oct. 15, 2010; Marcia Clemmitt, “Health-Care Reform,” June 11, 2010.