Judges Hear Arguments in Largest Case Against Health Reform Law
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta heard oral arguments and asked tough questions in the multistate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal health reform law and its individual mandate, the Washington Post reports (Aizenman, Washington Post, 6/8).
The judges are reviewing the Obama administration's appeal of a lower court's ruling that invalidated the entire law (Sack, New York Times, 6/8).
Background on Lawsuit
On Jan. 31, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson ruled that the reform law's requirement that most U.S. residents purchase health coverage or face a penalty is unconstitutional.
Vinson agreed with the suit's plaintiffs -- state attorneys general and governors of 26 states, the National Federation of Independent Business and two individuals -- that the individual mandate exceeds Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce. Vinson also invalidated the entire law because he concluded that the mandate is "inextricably bound" to other provisions in the law.
Amid conflicting interpretations of his ruling, Vinson issued a stay, permitting implementation of the overhaul to continue in the 26 plaintiff states while the administration pursued an appeal. The appeals court in Atlanta then granted the Obama administration's request to expedite an appeal (California Healthline, 5/5).
Details of Oral Arguments
During oral arguments, the judges seemed particularly interested in the administration's defense of the individual mandate, according to the AP/Miami Herald.
They repeatedly questioned the coverage requirement and indicated that they were not convinced by the administration's defense. Chief Judge Joel Dubina -- who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush -- asked the administration if there would be "any limits on congressional power" if the court were to uphold the individual mandate (Bluestein, AP/Miami Herald, 6/8).
Dubina also asked Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal to provide an example in which the U.S. Supreme Court used the Constitution's commerce clause to justify "compelling a private person to purchase a private product." Dubina said he had never before encountered such a case (Washington Post, 6/8). Judge Stanley Marcus -- who was appointed to the bench by President Reagan and elevated to the appellate court by President Clinton -- echoed Dubina's concern, according to the Los Angeles Times (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 6/8).
Former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, who is representing the states, argued that "[i]t boils down to the question of whether the federal government can compel people into commerce to better regulate the individual" (New York Times, 6/8). He acknowledged that Congress could require uninsured individuals to purchase coverage at the time they need it, but not in advance of such an instance. "In 220 years, Congress never saw fit to use this power, to compel a person to engage in commerce," Clement said (Los Angeles Times, 6/8).
Judge Frank Hull -- who was appointed by Clinton -- joined the other two judges in their concerns about the mandate, but dismissed Clement's argument that it constitutes regulation of an economic inactivity. "This activity-inactivity thing doesn't help me, personally," she said (Washington Post, 6/8).
Katyal -- who previously argued in defense of the law in similar appeals in Ohio and Virginia -- said Congress can exercise its power to regulate commerce if it would resolve a national problem, not a local one. He insisted that in this case, Congress is authorized to require health insurance for most uninsured individuals because they shift an estimated $43 billion in medical costs annually to taxpayers (AP/Miami Herald, 6/8). He said, "People are seeking this good already," adding, "It's about the failure to pay, not the failure to buy" (Haberkorn, Politico, 6/8).
The judges also asked Clement and Katyal about whether the full overhaul should stand if the individual mandate is struck down. Katyal said it would be a "deep, deep mistake" to invalidate the law. Clement said that the mandate is the "driving force" of the overhaul and that without it, the law should be rescinded (AP/Miami Herald, 6/8).
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judges offered no indication of a timeline for their ruling (Politico, 6/8).