TALLAHASSEE — The battle over federal health care reform continued its inevitable march toward the U.S. Supreme Court, with a U.S. district judge in Pensacola ruling Monday that the law is unconstitutional.
"Never before has Congress required that everyone buy a product from a private company," Judge Roger Vinson wrote in a 78-page ruling on the Florida-led lawsuit pitting 26 states against the federal government.
"I must reluctantly conclude that Congress exceeded the bounds of its authority in passing the Act with the individual mandate. Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the entire Act must be declared void."
Although he did not issue an injunction, Vinson said he assumes the federal government will treat his ruling as the "functional equivalent of an injunction."
It was the second ruling against the individual mandate, with a Virginia judge deeming it unconstitutional in December. In that case, though, the judge decided on the provision separately, rather than using it to dismiss the entire act. Two other federal judges have upheld the law.
At issue is whether Congress, through its powers to regulate interstate commerce, can require individuals to buy health insurance or face a tax penalty.
Vinson said no.
His ruling was cause for celebration among Republicans nationwide, with Washington lawmakers calling on a repeal vote by the U.S. Senate to match a vote last month in the U.S. House.
Federal attorneys pledged to appeal the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
"We strongly disagree with the court's ruling today and continue to believe — as other federal courts have found — that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional," said U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
She said the department may seek a stay to keep the law moving forward while the case is on appeal.
Besides arguing in December against the so-called "individual mandate," the Florida-led states also claimed the law is unconstitutional because it burdens them with a hugely expanded Medicaid program.
Vinson ruled against that part, concluding states have the option of not participating in Medicaid.
But given that Vinson deemed the entire act void, the point is moot.
Vinson said although many provisions of the act could exist without the individual mandate, that provision is necessary to meet the intent of the law, which he concluded is the reform of the health insurance industry.
"The Act, like a defectively designed watch, needs to be redesigned and reconstructed by the watchmaker," Vinson said.
The White House tried to play down the significance of the ruling, calling it an "outlier" and noting that it was backed solely by Republican attorneys general and governors.
"Today's ruling … is a plain case of judicial overreaching," read a response posted on the White House blog.
"Twelve federal judges have already dismissed challenges to the constitutionality of the health reform law, and two judges — in the Eastern District of Michigan and Western District of Virginia — have upheld the law," the White House said.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said families are already benefiting from the law, including provisions that prohibit health insurance companies from denying coverage because someone has pre-existing conditions, and that allow children to stay on their parents' policies until age 26.
"The Affordable Care Act outlawed some of the worst health insurance company abuses," Castor said. "The key is making the new law work, not spending time and energy on old political fights or lawsuits."
The grass roots organization Health Care for America Now blasted the decision by Vinson, who was appointed to the bench by Republican President Ronald Reagan. The group called it "judicial activism on steroids" that "advances the GOP's extremist agenda."
Washington Republicans were overjoyed by the news and suggested it would give momentum to an effort to "repeal and replace" the overhaul with alternative legislation.
"Today's decision affirms the view, held by most of the states and a majority of the American people, that the federal government should not be in the business of forcing you to buy health insurance and punishing you if you don't," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The Republican-led House has already passed a repeal but it is stopped in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina announced Monday that the companion legislation has the backing of all GOP senators, and he said the court ruling demands an expedited debate.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, "We cannot leave this decision in the hands of judges alone. The Senate Democrat leadership should follow the House's lead and hold an up-or-down vote to repeal Obamacare."
Former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum filed the lawsuit in March, minutes after President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. Current Attorney General Pam Bondi is carrying it forward.
"This is about liberty, it's not just about health care. And the federal government cannot force us to purchase a product or a good," she said. "We all know we need health care reform. This is not the way to do it."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, founder of the nonprofit Conservatives for Patients' Right, applauded the ruling.
"The judge has confirmed what many of us knew from the start: Obamacare is an unprecedented and unconstitutional infringement on the liberty of the American people," Scott said in a prepared statement. "Patients should have more control over health care decisions than a federal government that is spending money faster than it can be printed."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.