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Federal court backs healthcare law

In a surprise move, the conservative-leaning appellate court for the District of Columbia finds President Obama's insurance requirement to be constitutional.

November 10, 2011|By Noam N. Levey, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — One of the nation's most closely watched federal courts ruled Tuesday that the new healthcare law's requirement that most Americans get health insurance is constitutional, giving a surprise boost to President Obama's signature domestic achievement.

The opinion by the conservative-leaning U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia marked the second time this year that a federal appellate court with a majority of Republican appointees has backed the law and its insurance mandate.

Though the ruling will have little practical effect, it came just as the U.S. Supreme Court begins considering the constitutionality of the landmark legislation.

Three federal appellate courts — in Richmond, Va., Cincinnati and Washington — have rejected substantive challenges to the law. Only the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta has called the mandate unconstitutional.

The case decided Tuesday was brought by the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. The challenge had been dismissed by a federal judge this year.

Many observers believed the three-judge panel of the D.C. circuit, which includes two Republican appointees, would reverse the lower court and back the challenge to the law.

One of the GOP appointees — Laurence H. Silberman, who was appointed by President Reagan — has emerged as an intellectual leader on the court, winning plaudits in conservative circles for his 2007 opinion throwing out the District of Columbia's handgun ban.

But in a concise majority opinion in the healthcare case, Silberman categorically rejected the central Republican argument: that the law is an unconstitutional expansion of federal power.

"The right to be free from federal regulation is not absolute and yields to the imperative that Congress be free to forge national solutions to national problems," Silberman wrote. He was joined by Judge Harry Thomas Edwards, who was appointed to the court by President Carter.

Silberman and Edwards acknowledged that the insurance mandate, which will require most Americans to get insurance starting in 2014, is unprecedented.

But they largely accepted arguments by backers of the law that regulating healthcare is unlike other government enterprises.

"The health insurance market is rather a unique one, both because virtually everyone will enter or affect it, and because the uninsured inflict a disproportionate harm on the rest of the market as a result of their later consumption of healthcare services," they wrote.

Even the dissenting judge, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, did not accept the critics' argument that the insurance mandate is unconstitutional.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh instead wrote the issue shouldn't be reviewed until the law takes effect in 2014, a position also taken by the federal appellate court in Virginia.

noam.levey@latimes.com

James Oliphant in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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