By ruling the entire healthcare reform law unconstitutional — and not just the part he feels offends the founders — Judge Roger Vinson has likely made himself a hero to tea partier, but may not have raised his esteem in judicial circles.
Vinson’s ruling (which can be read in full here) — striking down not just the health insurance mandate, the part he deemed unconstitutional — but also the rest of the law, is, according to legal expertes, unprecedented. Typically, judges seek to preserve as much legislative intent as possible, in deference to, you know, that co-equal branch of government called Congress, striking down only the parts of laws they find violate their reading of the constitution. That’s what happened in Arizona, when a federal judge struck down part of that state’s immigration law, while leaving the overall law intact.
Not so, Vinson — a Reagan appointee. He went for the whole, tea party enchilada.
The ruling is a setback for the Obama administration, which dearly wants to move on from the intractable debates on healthcare (Slate offers one way to perhaps accomplish that.) But it also simply evens the score among federal judges at a rather partisan two and two (the two judges who struck down the law are Republican appointees, while the two who upheld it were appointed by Democrats.) That in itself is a troubling sign of the increasing politicization of our judiciary. But Vinson’s argument — 78 pages of what apparently sounds a lot like Family Research Council talking points – breaks new ground in judicial activism.
The White House seized on that argument in a blog post Monday:
Today’s ruling – issued by Judge Vinson in the Northern District of Florida – is a plain case of judicial overreaching. The judge’s decision contradicts decades of Supreme Court precedent that support the considered judgment of the democratically elected branches of government that the Act’s “individual responsibility” provision is necessary to prevent billions of dollars of cost-shifting every year by individuals without insurance who cannot pay for the health care they obtain. And the judge declared that the entire law is null and void even though the only provision he found unconstitutional was the “individual responsibility” provision. This decision is at odds with decades of established Supreme Court law, which has consistently found that courts have a constitutional obligation to preserve as a much of a statute as can be preserved. As a result, the judge’s decision puts all of the new benefits, cost savings and patient protections that were included in the law at risk.
Under today’s view of the law, seniors will pay higher prices for their prescription drugs and small businesses will pay higher taxes because small business tax credits would be eliminated. And the new provisions that prevent insurance companies from denying, capping or limiting your care would be wiped away.
Ezra Klein delves deeper into the strangeness of the ruling, with a little help from his friends:
In Wonkbook today, I linked to a couple of legal analyses of Judge Roger Vinson’s decision, including one by Ilya Somin that explained Vinson’s reasoning this way. “Vinson concedes that the individual mandate is ‘necessary’ under existing Supreme Court precedent, but argues that it isn’t ‘proper’ because the government’s logic amounts to giving Congress virtually unlimited power. I think this is exactly right.” It’s worth quoting Vinson himself on this point:
The defendants have asserted again and again that the individual mandate is absolutely “necessary” and “essential” for the Act to operate as it was intended by Congress. I accept that it is. Nevertheless, the individual mandate falls outside the boundary of Congress’ Commerce Clause authority and cannot be reconciled with a limited government of enumerated powers. By definition, it cannot be “proper.”
That thinking is the “weak link” in Vinson’s case, writes Somin’s co-blogger Orin Kerr. It’s really not up to Vinson overturn existing Supreme Court precedent in favor of his personal interpretation of the intent of the Founders. Kerr continues:
Judge Vinson is just a District Court judge. And if you pair Justice Thomas’s dissent in Raich with Judge Vinson’s opinion today, you realize the problem: Judge Vinson is reasoning that existing law must be a particular way because he thinks it should be that way as a matter of first principles, not because the relevant Supreme Court doctrine actually points that way. Remember that in Raich, the fact that the majority opinion gave the federal government the power to “regulate virtually anything” was a reason for Justice Thomas to dissent. In Judge Vinson’s opinion, however, the fact that the government’s theory gave the federal government the power to “regulate virtually anything” was a reason it had to be inconsistent with precedent.Obviously, I’m not arguing that Judge Vinson was bound by Justice Thomas’s dissent. Rather, my point is that Judge Vinson should not have used a first principle to trump existing Supreme Court caselaw when that principle may not be consistent with existing caselaw. Either Justice Thomas is wrong or Judge Vinson is wrong, and Judge Vinson was not making a persuasive legal argument when he followed the first principle instead of the cases. Because Judge Vinson is bound by Supreme Court precedent, I would think he should have applied the cases.
If you want to follow this argument a bit further, Simon Lazarus delves into more detail on the some of the past rulings and statements that Roberts, Kennedy and Scalia would have to wipe away to rule against the Obama administration in this case. The result, he says, would be not just a ruling against the legislation, but a ruling that would “exhume the long-dead and discredited doctrines that the pre-New Deal Supreme Court deployed to overturn laws that prohibited child labor, prescribed minimum wage levels and maximum hours.”
Vinson does have his defenders, and his ruling has surely ramped up the Republican machinery determined to keep us arguing about healthcare for another two years. The question is, in the end, will the activist Roberts court uphold tea party doctrine, or the commerce clause? Tick-tock…