United States District Court Judge Roger Vinson has struck down the entirety of the National Health Care law (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) as unconstitutional. What is most interesting is his decision that the entire act had to be struck down because of the individual mandate provision’s unconstitutionality. Vinson grants declaratory relief but declines to grant injunctive relief.
Joined by governors and attorneys general from 26 states, the Florida challenge was broader than the recent Virginia challenge — that led to the striking down of the individual mandate provision. I have previously written about my own concerns over the constitutionality of that provision.
The decision of Judge Vinson will only increase the already high likelihood that the Supreme Court will review the controversy. The two major decisions in Virginia and Florida will be reviewed by two different courts of appeal. Two other rulings (supporting the law) are also moving toward the Supreme Court.
The rule also represents a rejection of the Administration’s effort to avoid review by challenging the standing of the state attorneys general. Ironically, I reviewed the Bond v. U.S. (09-1227) case in my Supreme Court class today. That case involves a woman who challenged her conviction on federalism grounds. The Third Circuit ruled that only states and state officials could challenge federal laws on federalism grounds. The Obama Administration (correctly in my view) switched sides before the Court and ended up arguing for the Bond that she did have standing. This could prove an important term on standing doctrine. The conservatives justices have been generally hostile to standing and have gradually carved out individuals and groups who can seek review of some laws.
Judge Vinson ruled that he could not treat the individual mandate provision as severable and thus (after agreeing with Judge Hudson in Virginia that the provision is unconstitutional) he struck down the entire act. He stated: Judge Roger Vinson said as a result of the unconstitutionality of the “individual mandate” that requires people to buy insurance, the entire law must be thrown out:
“I must reluctantly conclude that Congress exceeded the bounds of its authority in passing the Act with the individual mandate. That is not to say, of course, that Congress is without power to address the problems and inequities in our health care system. The health care market is more than one sixth of the national economy, and without doubt Congress has the power to reform and regulate this market. That has not been disputed in this case. The principal dispute has been about how Congress chose to exercise that power here.”
The court notes that Congress elected not to include a severability clause despite the fact that one was in an earlier version of the law — setting itself up for such a total rejection of the law.
The decision is a strong expression of federalism, starting with Madison’s famous statement from the Federalist Papers 51:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal
controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over
men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next
place oblige it to control itself.
The problem is the lack of a limiting principle in the arguments in favor of the law. Vinson notes:
The problem with this legal rationale, however, is it would essentially have unlimited application. There is quite literally no decision that, in the natural course
of events, does not have an economic impact of some sort. The decisions of whether and when (or not) to buy a house, a car, a television, a dinner, or even a
morning cup of coffee also have a financial impact that — when aggregated with similar economic decisions — affect the price of that particular product or service
and have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. To be sure, it is not difficult to identify an economic decision that has a cumulatively substantial effect on
interstate commerce; rather, the difficult task is to find a decision that does not.
He notes the political pressure in the case: “Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the
entire Act must be declared void. This has been a difficult decision to reach, and I am aware that it will have indeterminable implications. At a time when there is
virtually unanimous agreement that health care reform is needed in this country, it is hard to invalidate and strike down a statute titled “The Patient Protection and
Affordable Care Act.”
In rejecting an injunction, the court indicates that declaratory and injunctive relief should be essentially fungible:
The last issue to be resolved is the plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief enjoining implementation of the Act, which can be disposed of very quickly. Injunctive relief is an “extraordinary” [Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo, 456 U.S. 305, 312, 102 S. Ct. 1798, 72 L. Ed. 2d 91 (1982)], and “drastic” remedy [Aaron v. S.E.C., 446 U.S. 680, 703, 100 S. Ct. 1945, 64 L. Ed. 2d 611 (1980) (Burger, J., concurring)]. It is even more so when the party to be enjoined is the federal government, for there is a long-standing presumption “that officials of the Executive Branch will adhere to the law as declared by the court. As a result, the declaratory judgment is the functional equivalent of an injunction.” See Comm. on Judiciary of U.S. House of Representatives v. Miers, 542 F.3d 909, 911 (D.C. Cir. 2008); accord Sanchez-Espinoza v. Reagan, 770 F.2d 202, 208 n.8 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (“declaratory judgment is, in a context such as this where federal officers are defendants, the practical equivalent of specific relief such as an injunction . . . since it must be presumed that federal officers will adhere to the law as declared by the court”) (Scalia, J.) (emphasis added). There is no reason to conclude that this presumption should not apply here. Thus, the award of declaratory relief is adequate and separate injunctive relief is not necessary.
I doubt the Administration will view it that way. They have two decision upholding the law and two rejecting the law on the district level. They are not likely to view themselves constructively enjoined.
Here is the entire decision by Judge Vinson: Vinson