Skip to main content

Advanced Search

Advanced Search

Current Filters

Filter your query

Publication Types



Newsletter Article


States' Lawsuit Against Health Care Law to Move Forward

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

October 14, 2010 -- A U.S. District Court judge in Florida on Thursday allowed two parts of a multistate lawsuit against the health care law to move forward, including an argument that the measure's individual mandate is unconstitutional. But the ruling was far from a final decision on the law.

The written decision by Judge Roger Vinson was not a surprise, since he had indicated during a September hearing he probably would permit at least a portion of the suit involving 20 states to continue. However, it was still a setback for the Obama administration, which will have to continue to fight the states in the federal courts. The battle is expected to reach the Supreme Court.

Vinson allowed a claim to move forward that the individual health insurance mandate and the penalty for not buying coverage violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. He also allowed a challenge to the law's Medicaid expansion. States contend they will be overwhelmed by costs for the state-federal program if they eventually have to pay for millions of new enrollees.

The suit in the Northern District of Florida was brought by Republican attorneys general from 16 states and governors from four states, the National Federation of Independent Business and two individual taxpayers. It was filed minutes after President Obama signed the law on March 23.

Vinson set Dec. 16 for a summary judgment hearing on the suit, where both sides will make arguments on the merits of their cases.

DOJ Disappointed
The defendants are the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Treasury, Department of Labor and their secretaries. Lawyers for the Department of Justice contend the government has the power to regulate interstate commerce, and that includes the purchase of health insurance.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice (DOJ) said that while the government was "disappointed" the court did not dismiss the entire case, the decision to reject other claims that were made by the states was welcomed. Other claims dealt with issues such as state sovereignty.

"The judge saved for another day the decision on the merits of two claims, and we remain confident that the law ultimately will be upheld," said DOJ's Tracy Schmaler. "This case is in the early stages of litigation and the department will continue to vigorously defend this law in ongoing litigation."

Vinson said that his ruling on the lawsuit was not a decision on the overall merits of the law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), though he did examine at length the arguments on both sides in his 65-page decision.

"In ruling on the defendants' motion to dismiss, I must only decide if this court has jurisdiction to consider some of the plaintiffs' claims, and whether each of the counts of the amended complaint states a plausible claim for relief," Vinson wrote.

But he also said that the individual mandate applies across the board and people have no choice. Either they comply or they will be penalized, Vinson said. "It is not based on an activity that they make the choice to undertake," he said. "Rather, it is based solely on citizenship and on being alive."

He quoted a Congressional Budget Office statement from 16 years ago that a mandate to buy insurance would be an unprecedented federal action that has never before been required as a condition of lawful residence in the United States.

Saying it is novel does not mean it is unconstitutional, Vinson said, because there's a first time for everything. But at this point the plaintiffs have "most definitely" stated a plausible claim for action, he said.

He added: "In this order, I have not attempted to determine whether the line between constitutional and extraconstitutional government has been crossed. That will be decided on the basis of the parties' expected motions for summary judgment, when I will have the benefit of additional argument and all evidence in the record that may bear on the outstanding issues.

"I am only saying that (with respect to two of the particular causes of action discussed above) the plaintiffs have at least stated a plausible claim that the line has been crossed."

Praise From Plaintiffs
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum praised the ruling as a victory. "It is the first step to having the individual mandate declared unconstitutional and upholding state sovereignty in our federal system and means this case will go forward to the summary judgment hearing that the court has set for December 16th," he said.

"Congress has no constitutional authority to force the individual mandate and its penalty on Americans who cannot afford or do not wish to have health insurance," said McCollum. "Regardless of whether the Obama administration argues it is a tax or regulation, it is an unjust burden on the American public."

But Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, an advocacy group that backs the law, said he expects it will ultimately be upheld and that the ruling has no bearing on the validity of the law. Implementation will continue without interruption, he said.

"This case is really a politically motivated ploy aimed at diverting attention from the many benefits of the new law," added Pollack.

Publication Details