Published December 13, 2010
The Republican attorney general behind the first successful court challenge to the federal health care law said Monday that a judge's ruling against the so-called individual mandate marks a "great day for the Constitution," but predicted a drawn-out legal battle that ultimately ends at the Supreme Court.
While the White House defended the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as constitutional, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli lauded the milestone ruling striking down the provision requiring Americans to buy health insurance. The ruling marked the first time any federal judge has stricken part of the controversial legislation.
"This case is not about health insurance. It is not about health care. It's about liberty," Cuccinelli said at a press conference Monday afternoon in the state capital, Richmond. "We've won the first round of this particular fight, but we know there are others to come."
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson wrote that he is severing the portion of the law on the individual mandate, known as Section 1501, while not granting an injunction against the entire law. He acknowledged that the decision will have to go higher than his jurisdiction.
"The outcome of this case has significant public policy implications. And the final work will undoubtedly reside with a higher court," Hudson wrote.
If Section 1501 were abolished, it could seriously jeopardize enactment of the whole law because the provision calls for collecting most of the money that is supposed to flow into the system from millions of additional participants to the health insurance rolls. Without it, the law's execution could be severely compromised.
Obama administration officials expressed confidence in their case Monday as they weighed their next move. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs predicted the Justice Department would appeal the ruling, noting that two other federal judges -- including one in Virginia -- have upheld the law.
"The bill will continue to have its day in court," Gibbs said. "Challenges like this are nothing new. ... We're confident that it is constitutional."
"There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing this law and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail," added Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
According to the administration, a dozen court cases against the law have been dismissed. The lawsuit is just one of nearly two dozen challenges filed in federal courts across the country, many of which deal with the individual mandate. Another high-profile suit filed in Florida and joined by 20 states and the National Federation of Independent Businesses will go before Judge Roger Vinson on Thursday.
The Justice Department is expected to request a stay, which if granted would put the decision on hold while litigation proceeds. The individual mandate is not set to go into effect until 2014, giving both sides time to make their case in court.
Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell urged the Obama administration to push instead for fast-tracking the case directly to the Supreme Court, saying "there must be certainty and finality" for businesses and individuals.
In the ruling, the judge ruled that the individual mandate exceeds the power of Congress under both the Constitution's Commerce Clause and General Welfare Clause and effectively called out the Obama administration for trying to argue that the penalty on those who don't buy insurance amounted to a tax -- after denying it was a tax during the political debate over the bill. Hudson rejected the belated claim that the mandate and associated penalty count as an exercise of the government's taxing power.
Hudson wrote that such a requirement "lacks logical limitation," as it could just as easily apply to "transportation, housing or nutritional decisions."
He wrote that every application of the Commerce Clause upheld to date involved "some form of action, transaction or deed placed in motion by an individual or legal entity," whereas the question before the court dealt with a person's refusal to purchase a product -- in this case health insurance.
"Despite the laudable intentions of Congress in enacting a comprehensive and transformative health care regime, the legislative process must still operate within constitutional bounds," he wrote. "Salutatory goals and creating drafting have never been sufficient to offset an absence of enumerated powers."
Both Gibbs and Nancy Ann DeParle, head of the White House Office of Health Reform, argued that doing away with the coverage requirement would undermine a provision prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Gibbs said without the coverage mandate, it would be "enormously expensive" to cover those who are most sick.
DeParle called the mandate "key to making sure that we can ban the pre-existing conditions exclusions."
"So it's a really important provision and we're confident we'll prevail on it in the end," DeParle told Fox News.
The case decided Monday was filed by Cuccinelli on March 23, the same day that President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law.
In the lawsuit, Cuccinelli said the federal government is constitutionally prohibited from forcing Americans to buy insurance.
"The status of being a citizen or resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia is not a channel of interstate commerce; nor a person or thing in interstate commerce; nor is it an activity arising out of or connected with a commercial transaction," Cuccinelli wrote in his lawsuit.
On Monday, Cuccinelli described the stakes as high, warning that if the federal government is allowed to mandate the purchase of insurance its power to intrude on private lives will be "virtually unlimited."
In an interview with ABC News last month, President Obama defended the mandate.
"What I think is appropriate is that in the same way that everybody has to get auto insurance and if you don't, you're subject to some penalty, that in this situation, if you have the ability to buy insurance, it's affordable and you choose not to do so, forcing you and me and everybody else to subsidize you, you know, there's a thousand dollar hidden tax that families all across America are -- are burdened by because of the fact that people don't have health insurance, you know, there's nothing wrong with a penalty," he said.
GOP lawmakers, many of whom want to repeal the law, said they were enthused by Monday's court decision.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., in line to be the next House majority leader, called the ruling a "clear affirmation" that the law is unconstitutional.
"Ultimately, we must ensure that no American will be forced by the federal government to purchase health insurance they may not need, want, or be able to afford," he said.
Fox News' Lee Ross contributed to this report.