Does the federal government have the power to make you eat broccoli so that every American can be healthier? That's a devil's advocate question -- one of many, and one of the more amusing ones -- posed today by US District Judge Roger Vinson inside his Pensacola, Fla. courtroom.
His question targeted the Department of Justice's position that Congress has the authority to require every American to pay for health insurance by the year 2014, as mandated by President Obama's landmark health care reform legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
The DOJ and attorneys general for 20 states each had about an hour inside Vinson's courtroom to give their best argument as to whether the law is constitutional or not. Judge Vinson told the court he'll make his decision as soon as he can, which is expected to be no earlier than mid-January.
At the center of this lawsuit -- one of about two dozen that have been filed -- are two arguments: first, that Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the US Constitution (also known as the Commerce Clause) doesn't allow Congress to penalize anyone who decides NOT to get health insurance and second, that the 10th Amendment gives states all powers that are not specifically granted to the federal government.
The plaintiffs argue that the Commerce Clause cannot be used to tax "inactivity," the choice not to participate in health care insurance, because Congress can only tax an "activity."
The government argues that it can, since everyone will eventually require health care, and if someone doesn't have insurance, then it affects interstate commerce by forcing premiums up on those who do have health insurance, as well as passing higher costs to insurance companies and hospitals.
As for the 10th Amendment, the plaintiffs argue it saves the states from being forced to expand their Medicaid programs, as required under the Affordable Care Act. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum estimates that would add $1 billion to the state's costs, a state already $3.5 billion in the red.
So far, two US District Judges have ruled that the health care act is constitutional, one in Detroit, and the other in Lynchburg, Va. On Monday, a federal judge in Richmond, Va. ruled it unconstitutional. All three of those cases are already being appealed to the 6th and 4th Circuit Courts of Appeal and most legal analysts believe that, ultimately, this case will be decided by the US Supreme Court.
As for broccoli, it is good for you, according to nutritionists. But for now, neither you nor former President George H. W. Bush has to eat it (he notoriously doesn't like the bushy green vegetable).