US Appeals Court in Atlanta Strikes Down Individual Mandate

August 12, 2011

August 12, 2011 — The legal battle over healthcare reform has grown more complicated now that a US appeals court in Atlanta, Georgia, has ruled that the law's requirement for individuals to obtain health insurance coverage or pay a penalty is unconstitutional.

Today's decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is the exact opposite of the one reached on June 29 by another federal appellate court in Cincinnati, Ohio. It upheld the so-called individual mandate, designed to correct the problem of cost-shifting created by the uninsured population.

The split decisions on the appellate level — and among US district courts as well — further increase the odds that the US Supreme Court will review the disputed law and settle the matter.

The ruling by the Atlanta appellate court mostly upholds a decision by US District Judge Roger Vinson in Pensacola, Florida, in a challenge to the Affordable Care Act brought by officials from 26 states. In an opinion issued January 31, Vinson stated that the individual mandate exceeds the authority of Congress to regulate interstate commerce as granted by the Constitution's Commerce Clause. "If Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain...and we would have a Constitution in name only," Vinson wrote.

The 3-judge appellate panel in Atlanta agreed, stating that although the US healthcare system is beset by difficulties, the cure cannot be "extra-constitutional legislation."

"The federal government's assertion of power, under the Commerce Clause, to issue an economic mandate for Americans to purchase insurance from a private company for the entire duration of their lives is unprecedented, lacks cognizable limits, and imperils our federalist structure," the judges wrote.

However, the appellate judges said that Vinson erred when he declared the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, having reasoned that the individual mandate and the other provisions of the law are bound together "and must rise or fall as a unit." The appellate judges countered that "excising the individual mandate from the Act does not prevent the remaining provisions from being 'fully operative as a law.'"

The issue of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is also before a US appellate court in Richmond, Virginia, which is weighing appeals of 2 lower-court decisions in that state. A federal district judge in Lynchburg, Virginia, upheld the individual mandate, whereas another in Richmond, Virginia, struck it down. A ruling from this third appellate court is expected soon.

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