CINCINNATI — In the first ruling by a federal appeals court on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, a panel in Cincinnati handed the administration a victory Wednesday by agreeing that the government can require a minimum amount of insurance for Americans.
A Republican-appointed judge joined with a Democratic appointee for the 2-1 majority in another milestone for Obama's debated signature domestic initiative — the first time a Republican federal court appointee has affirmed the merits of the law.
The White House and Justice Department hailed the panel's affirmation of an earlier ruling by a federal court in Michigan; opponents of the law said challenges will continue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue is a conservative law center's lawsuit arguing on behalf of plaintiffs that potentially requiring them to buy insurance or face penalties could subject them to financial hardship. The suit warns that the law is too broad and could lead to more federal mandates.
The Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., argued before the panel that the law was unconstitutional and that Congress overstepped its powers. The government countered that the measure was needed for the overall goal of reducing health care costs and reforms such as protecting people with pre-existing conditions. It said the coverage mandate will help keep the costs of changes from being shifted to households and providers.
White House adviser Stephanie Cutter called the ruling "another victory" for millions of Americans and small businesses benefiting from the overhaul. The law center predicted its case would have a good shot on appeal.
The three-judge 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel delivered a lengthy opinion with disagreement on some issues, moving unusually quickly in delivering its decision less than a month after hearing oral arguments.
"Congress had a rational basis for concluding that the minimum coverage provision is essential to the Affordable Care Act's larger reforms to the national markets in health care delivery and health insurance," Judge Boyce F. Martin, appointed by former President Jimmy Carter, wrote for the majority.
A George W. Bush appointee concurred; a Ronald Reagan appointee who is a U.S. district judge in Columbus sitting on the panel disagreed. Judges are selected for panels through random draw.
"If the exercise of power is allowed and the mandate upheld, it is difficult to see what the limits on Congress' Commerce Clause authority would be," warned dissenting Judge James Graham of Columbus. "What aspect of human activity would escape federal power?"
Judge Jeffrey Sutton, the Bush appointee, delivered the decisive vote, although his opinion raised questions and noted the unusual nature of a law directed at someone who chooses inaction, referring to those "who prize that most American of freedoms: to be left alone."
But the government argued that telling someone to buy health insurance, something that virtually everyone needs and is part of a sweeping effort, isn't the same as ordering them to buy a car or a vegetable.