Here is my column in USA Today (which was posted yesterday but will run in print on Monday) on the charge that Judge Vinson is an activist after his striking down of the entire health care plan. While I did not view the opinion as particularly strong in its substantive analysis and did not like the rhetoric flourishes (as discussed with Lawrence O’Donnell this week), I find the charge of activism to be a bit forced over the issue of severability.
Our Ford Pinto health care law takes a hit
By Jonathan Turley
Borrowing an attack that has more often been heard from Republican administrations, Stephanie Cutter, a senior adviser to President Obama, issued a statement denouncing Vinson as a “judicial activist.” That charge was quickly picked up by Democratic lawmakers. The evidence cited for this charge was the fact that Vinson “declared that the entire law is null and void even though the only provision he found unconstitutional was the (individual mandate) provision,” which requires every citizen to buy health insurance.
What the White House does not mention is that it played a game of chicken over health care with the court and lost a critical battle in Florida. Instead of inserting a “severability clause” designed to protect an act from this type of global rejection, the legislation was rammed through a divided Congress with diminishing public support.
The absence of the clause was just one of the flaws in this legislation, which even sponsors now admit must be amended to address serious problems ranging from paperwork overload to uncertain costs to questions over what plans will count under the law. Even for some of us who support national health care, the bill unnecessarily triggered the constitutional fight that led to its rejection in two federal courts. There were alternatives to achieve the same end, but what was lacking was a willingness to reconsider these provisions with the approach of the new Congress.
A standard feature
Yet the failure of lawmakers to insert a boilerplate severability clause is the most puzzling. The standard clause — pardon the legalese — states, “If any particular provision of this act, or the application thereof to any person or circumstance, is held invalid, the remainder of the act and the application of such provision to other persons or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.” It is generally on a short list of basic elements for legislation, such as putting a title and preamble on a bill.
The national health care bill contained such a provision, but it was removed before passage. Of course, even without such a clause, judges can still avoid striking down an entire law and confine their rulings to a specific provision. That is what Judge Henry Hudson did last year in Virginia after finding the individual mandate unconstitutional. Hudson was right to do so, in my view, but that does not make Vinson a judicial activist.
The charge of activism sounds like the lament of every bad gambler after being discouraged from playing a high-risk hand.
The risk was always there
Many — including yours truly — had raised concerns over the constitutionality of the individual mandate. Even the respected Congressional Research Service noted that such objections might have merit. Ultimately, public officials in 26 states have challenged the law.
Even if one accepts that the removal of the clause was just some colossal, inexplicable blunder, it was the blunder of the White House and Congress — not the courts. The result was a Ford Pinto law — a fast and cheap vehicle that would explode with even low-speed collisions.
The Justice Department undermined its own case by repeatedly warning Vinson in court that if he struck down the individual mandate, the law would be fundamentally crippled. Without the mandate (and young healthy people forced to buy insurance), the plan is fatally underfunded. It appeared to the court that the administration was arguing that it was an “all-or-nothing” proposition. Vinson’s ruling: Nothing it is.
Of course, the law could be ultimately saved by the U.S. Supreme Court, where it is clearly heading. In the end, however, it seems a bit forced for the Obama administration to throw around the old cry of “judicial activism” when it pushed through a law that removed the critical safety provision for severability.
The problem with games of chicken is that sometimes the other guy does not jump before the cliff.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.