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U.S. Judge Keeps Alive Partisan Streak On Health Care Law

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson's ruling that the individual mandate in the health care law is unconstitutional was expected and keeps alive the partisan streak in these decisions.

All the federal district judges to date could be predicted based on the party affiliation of the president who appointed the jurist. Maybe it's just a coincidence. Or maybe not.

Also, Vinson a Reagan appointee in the northern district of Florida in Pensacola, had signaled in his courtroom questioning that he would likely find the individual mandate unconstitutional.

If there was any surprise, it was that the judge said the entire law was unconstitutional. Some analysts had thought his ruling would be narrower.

But Vinson said that because the mandate was so central to the law, the entire law was unconstitutional.

In seizing on the linchpin nature of the individual mandate, Vinson used the argument the law's supporters have relied on, against the law.

The Obama Administration, congressional backers and the insurance industry have all said the individual mandate is what allows insurers to insure people with pre-existing conditions.

The larger pool of insured individuals, including the healthy who use few medical services, spreads the losses that come from spending on the sickest individuals over a much larger group of people.

Insurers say that allows insurers to maintain the kind of profits they need to be able to insure those with pre-existing conditions or to not drop those with insurance who become sick.

So now it stands at two Clinton-appointed district judges - Norman Moon of Lynchburg, Va. and George Steeh of Detroit, ruling on the side of the new law.

Vinson's ruling joins Judge Henry Hudson of Richmond who also ruled the individual mandate to be unconstitutional.

It's fairly obvious that this judicial back and forth will likely only be ended once a decision is finally rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And as legal expert Stuart Taylor has noted, it wouldn't be surprising if a high court decision comes down as a partisan 5-4 ruling, too.

Meanwhile, the statements from those in the branches of government who are more openly partisan than those in the judiciary, were just as predictable as the rulings to date.

From House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH):

"Today's decision affirms the view, held by most of the states and a majority of the American people, that the federal government should not be in the business of forcing you to buy health insurance and punishing you if you don't. It's not only unconstitutional, it's also unaffordable. This health care law remains a major source of uncertainty for small businesses, which is why all parties involved should request that this case be sent to the U.S. Supreme Court for a swift and fair resolution. Of course, the easiest way to protect the American people from this job-destroying health care law is to repeal it so we can start over with common-sense reforms that lower costs and protect jobs without unconstitutional mandates, new taxes, and costly penalties. The House has passed legislation to do just that, and I hope Senate Democratic leaders will bring up the measure for an up-or-down vote."

White House aides have said the administration will appeal the decision. An excerpt from a White House blog post by Stephanie Cutter:

Today, a judge in Florida issued a decision in a case filed by 25 Republican Attorneys General and Governors striking down the Affordable Care Act. This ruling is well out of the mainstream of judicial opinion. Twelve federal judges have already dismissed challenges to the constitutionality of the health reform law, and two judges – in the Eastern District of Michigan and Western District of Virginia – have upheld the law. In one other case, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia issued a very narrow ruling on the constitutionality of the health reform law's "individual responsibility" provision and upheld the rest of the law.

Today's ruling – issued by Judge Vinson in the Northern District of Florida – is a plain case of judicial overreaching. The judge's decision contradicts decades of Supreme Court precedent that support the considered judgment of the democratically elected branches of government that the Act's "individual responsibility" provision is necessary to prevent billions of dollars of cost-shifting every year by individuals without insurance who cannot pay for the health care they obtain. And the judge declared that the entire law is null and void even though the only provision he found unconstitutional was the "individual responsibility" provision. This decision is at odds with decades of established Supreme Court law, which has consistently found that courts have a constitutional obligation to preserve as a much of a statute as can be preserved. As a result, the judge's decision puts all of the new benefits, cost savings and patient protections that were included in the law at risk.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.