A federal judge in Virginia ruled Monday that the individual mandate contained in the health care law passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama this year is unconstitutional.
Judge Henry E. Hudson found in favor of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who brought this suit separately from the other state attorney generals suing the federal government over the law. Hudson was the first judge to rule against the law. Two other judges ruled in favor of the law, bringing the Obama administration’s record thus far to 2-1. At least 13 other suits against the health care law have been dismissed on jurisdiction or standing issues.
Hudson ruled that there where “no compelling exigencies in this case” because the individual mandate doesn’t take effect until 2013. Therefore, he said his ruling was declarative and not injunctive, which means it will be reviewed either by the appellate court or by the Supreme Court.
“We are disappointed in today’s ruling but continue to believe - as other federal courts in Virginia and Michigan have found - that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional,” Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler told TPM in a statement. “There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing this law and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail.”
“At its core, this dispute is not simply about regulating the business of insurance-or crafting a scheme of universal health insurance coverage-it’s about an individual’s right to choose to participate,” wrote Hudson a George W. Bush-appointee. “The unchecked expansion of congressional power to the limits suggested by the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision would invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers.”
“Despite the laudable intentions of Congress in enacting a comprehensive and transformative health care regime, the legislative process must still operate within constitutional bounds,” wrote Hudson.
“Because an individual’s personal decision to purchase — or decline to purchase — health insurance from a private provider is beyond the historical reach of the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause does not provide a safe sanctuary” for health care, Hudson wrote.
Hudson concluded that Congress did not intend to exercise its powers of taxation under the General Welfare Clause, noting the “unequivocal denials by the Executive and Legislative branches that the ACA was a tax.”
But, Hudson noted, earlier versions of the bill in the House and the Senate “used the more politically toxic term ‘tax’ when referring to the assessment for noncompliance with the insurance mandate.”
Cuccinelli argued that the Affordable Care Act conflicts with the Virginia Health Care Freedom Act, which was passed by the state in anticipation of the passage of the federal law. Virginia’s law said that no individual mandate could be required. Hudson ruled that the law raised constitutional questions on Congress’ power to penalize people for refusing to participate in interstate commerce.
As TPM reported, because Democrats left out a “severability clause” when writing the Affordable Care Act, plaintiffs had requested the entire law be scrapped.
Hudson didn’t agree, ruling that type of analysis “is difficult to apply in this case given the haste with which the final version of the 2,700 page bill was rushed to the floor for a Christmas Eve vote.”
“It would be virtually impossible within the present record to determine whether Congress would have passed this bill, encompassing a wide variety of topics related and unrelated to heath care, without Section 1501,” Hudson ruled. Therefore, Hudson said the court would “sever with circumspection” the “problematic portions while leaving the remainder intact.”
“The outcome of this case has significant public policy implications,” Hudson wrote. “And the final word will undoubtedly reside with a higher court.”
TPM’s full guide to the major health care reform lawsuits is available here.
This post has been updated. Additional reporting by Alex Sciuto.