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Removed from spotlight, Bill McCollum has his moment at the high court

Published Apr. 5, 2012

WASHINGTON — If you cheered the Obama administration's poor performance defending the health care law before the U.S. Supreme Court last week, thank the Wall Street Journal and Bill McCollum.

It was Sept. 18, 2009, and then-Florida Attorney General McCollum took the newspaper to lunch in Tallahassee and read a column that asserted that the law's requirement that Americans carry insurance or pay a penalty is unconstitutional.

"My gut was this makes all the sense in the world," McCollum recalled in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

He asked his staff to do some research. And seven minutes after President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010, McCollum filed suit in Pensacola.

As three days of oral arguments began last week, it was McCollum's successor, Pam Bondi, getting all the media attention. McCollum, 67, ran for governor in 2010 and lost the Republican primary to Rick Scott.

But from a side seat in the high court, McCollum had his moment.

"It was an intensely interesting process," he said. "I was totally engrossed in the exchanges that were going on. As someone intimately familiar with the arguments and the preparation of them, I could hear myself quietly trying to make some of the arguments."

A number of his former colleagues, the 25 Republican state attorneys general that joined the Florida suit, came up to him to acknowledge his work.

"It was a total team effort," McCollum said. "Of all the things I've done in political life, this is going to be right at the top of the list."

He is cautious to predict the outcome.

"If — and it's a big if — the court decides to strike down the individual mandate, there is a good likelihood they will strike down the whole law or certainly a more significant portion than critics imagined going into the hearing," he said.

"I said to people this is going to be a 5-4 decision and I still think that's likely and I think it will be Justice (Anthony) Kennedy who makes the difference. Kennedy left the door open to go either way."

The court had tough questions for both sides but the Obama administration had, by most accounts, a terrible time articulating why the individual mandate was constitutional.

"We've been to a large extent vindicated no matter how the court rules," McCollum said. "At the beginning of all this, there were a lot of people saying, 'Oh that's a frivolous lawsuit.' I don't know how anybody who watched the U.S. Supreme Court in the last few days can say this is anything but a very substantive challenge."

On the final day of arguments, McCollum sat in one of the seats reserved for guests of Chief Justice John Roberts. Each justice gets some seats.

"Don't read into that," McCollum laughed. He said he had contacted the court expressing concern he might not get in and got word back that Roberts awarded him a spot.

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McCollum got a seat the day before by standing in line with other members of the Supreme Court bar.


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