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Ruling won't stand in way of healthcare reform implementation

The healthcare law can continue to be implemented, says a Florida judge who earlier ruled the law unconstitutional. Judge Roger E. Vinson has backed an Obama administration request to stay his ruling while the law is reviewed by appellate courts.

March 03, 2011|By Noam N. Levey | Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Handing the Obama administration a legal victory, the federal judge in Florida who ruled the new healthcare law unconstitutional has cleared the way for continued implementation of the sweeping overhaul.

In a ruling released Thursday, Judge Roger E. Vinson, one of two federal judges who have said that the federal government cannot require Americans to get health insurance, stood by his Jan. 31 conclusion that the insurance mandate invalidates the whole law.

But he backed the administration's request that his earlier ruling be stayed while appellate courts review the constitutionality of the new law.

Vinson called on the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta to expedite that process so the healthcare law could be considered by the nation's highest court.

"The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be," Vinson wrote.

Federal appellate courts in Virginia and Michigan are also reviewing constitutional challenges to the healthcare law that President Obama signed last March.

In total, three federal judges have ruled that Congress has the authority under the so-called Commerce Clause of the Constitution to require Americans to get health insurance, a mandate seen as critical to regulating insurance and guaranteeing that all citizens can get coverage.

Two judges, including Vinson, have concluded that the requirement would improperly open the door to federally imposed mandates to purchase other products.

Vinson's ruling had been the most closely watched, however, in part because the plaintiffs in the case include 26 states, all but one of which is represented by a Republican governor or attorney general.

Vinson also set off a legal firestorm by appearing to throw out the entire law, even though he concluded that only the insurance mandate was unconstitutional.

In contrast, U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson, who ruled for the state of Virginia in its challenge to the law, only concluded that that section of the mammoth law with the insurance mandate should be thrown out.

Vinson's original ruling, which some interpreted as a green light for states to stop implementing the health overhaul, prompted the Obama administration to seek the stay.

And Thursday, Department of Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler applauded Vinson's latest ruling. "We appreciate the court's recognition of the enormous disruption that would have resulted if implementation of the Affordable Care Act was abruptly halted," she said in a statement.

Karen Harned, executive director of the legal center at the National Federation of Independent Business, which joined the states in suing to overturn the law, hailed the call for an expedited review.

"As Judge Vinson noted, it is in the best interest for all Americans for this case to be resolved, ultimately by the U.S. Supreme Court, as quickly as is practically possible," she said.

Vinson gave the Obama administration seven days to file an appeal, something Schmaler said the administration would be doing.

noam.levey@latimes.com

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