Healthcare Reform Lawsuit in Florida Survives Test

October 14, 2010

October 14, 2010 — Elected officials from 20 states today won a battle in their constitutional challenge to the new healthcare reform law when a federal judge in Florida ruled that key portions of their suit could move forward.

The suit mounts 6 different constitutional arguments against the new law, taking aim primarily at the requirement that individuals obtain health insurance coverage or else pay a penalty.

US District Judge Roger Vinson in Pensacola, Florida, dismissed 4 counts of the lawsuit as requested by the Obama administration, but spared 2. One of those preserved counts claims that the so-called individual mandate exceeds the authority that the constitution's commerce clause gives to the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, which the Obama administration says includes the healthcare market. In the process, state officials contend, the individual mandate violates the 9th and 10th amendments of the constitution, written to safeguard individual and states' rights.

US District Judge Roger Vinson

The other count of the lawsuit that Vinson did not dismiss asserts that the law interferes with states' sovereignty — a violation of the 9th and 10th amendments — by forcing them to participate in the new healthcare coverage infrastructure and assume costs they cannot afford, such as the cost of expanded Medicaid programs.

Vinson stressed in his ruling that just because he was allowing the 2 counts to go forward did not mean that he had attempted to determine "whether the line between Constitutional and extraconstitutional government has been crossed."

"I am only saying that (with respect to 2 of the particular causes of action discussed above) the plaintiffs have at least stated a plausible claim that the line has been crossed," Vinson wrote, adding that he would make his determination based on motions for summary judgment that he expects each side to file. In a summary judgment, a court decides a case without a trial because the facts are not in dispute, and one side is entitled to a judgment simply as a matter of law.

Vinson's ruling was the latest development in a string of similar lawsuits filed in federal courts in various states. Last week, a federal judge in Detroit, Michigan, upheld the constitutionality of the individual mandate in a suit filed by a Christian legal defense organization called the Thomas More Law Center and several individuals. The Thomas More Law Center intends to appeal the decision.

Conflicting decisions by different federal courts — district or appellate — on the law's constitutionality will likely trigger a hearing before the US Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs in the federal court case in Florida include the attorneys general of Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Washington, and the governors of Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, and Nevada. All of the state officials are Republicans except for Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell, a Democrat. Other plaintiffs are 2 individuals who object to the individual mandate and the National Federation of Independent Business.

Based on a timetable set out by Vinson, each party in the Florida federal case has until November 4 to ask for a summary judgment. One party's opposition to another's motion for this judgment must be filed by November 23, with the party asking for the judgment having until December 6 to make any reply. Vinson will hear oral arguments on the expected motions for summary judgment on December 16.

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