World and Nation

Second judge strikes down Obama health care law

A second federal judge ruled Monday that it had been unconstitutional for Congress to enact a health care law that requires all Americans to obtain commercial insurance, evening the score at 2-2 in the lower courts as the conflicting opinions begin their path to the Supreme Court.

But unlike a Virginia judge in December, Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. District Court in Pensacola, Fla., concluded the insurance requirement was so “inextricably bound” to other provisions of the Affordable Care Act that its unconstitutionality required the invalidation of the entire law.

“The act, like a defectively designed watch, needs to be redesigned and reconstructed by the watchmaker,” Vinson wrote.

The judge declined to immediately enjoin, or suspend, the law pending appeals, a process that could last two years. But he wrote that the federal government should adhere to his declaratory judgment as the functional equivalent of an injunction. That left confusion about how the ruling might be interpreted in the 26 states that are parties to the legal challenge.

The insurance requirement, known as the individual mandate, does not take effect until 2014. But many new regulations are already operating, such as a requirement that insurers cover children with pre-existing health conditions. States also are actively preparing for a major expansion of Medicaid eligibility and the introduction of health insurance exchanges in 2014.

David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer for the states, said the ruling relieves the plaintiff states of any obligation to comply with the health law. “With regard to all parties to this lawsuit, the statute is dead,” Rivkin said.

But White House officials declared the opinion should not deter the ongoing rollout of the law. “Implementation would continue apace,” a senior administration official said. “This is not the last word by any means.”

At the same time, Stephanie Cutter, an assistant to the president, noted in a post on the White House blog that the ruling had struck down the entire law. She called it “a plain case of judicial overreaching,” and added: “The judge’s decision puts all of the new benefits, cost savings and patient protections that were included in the law at risk.”

The Justice Department, which represents the Obama administration in the health care litigation, said it was exploring legal options to clarify the uncertainty, including requesting a stay of the decision, either from Vinson himself or from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans sent out a stream of e-mail messages praising the ruling, while Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said he would convene a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday to examine the constitutionality of the law.

In a 78-page opinion, Vinson held the insurance requirement exceeds the regulatory powers granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Vinson wrote that the provision could not be rescued by the clause that gives Congress broad authority to make laws “necessary and proper.”