Federal judge: Challenge to ObamaCare mandate can proceed to trial

Arguably the biggest story of the day, even though it’s barely a story at all. One way or another, the mandate will end up before the Supreme Court. Maybe it’ll get there via this suit in Florida or maybe it’ll get there via the one pending in Virginia or just maybe it’ll get there on appeal from last week’s ruling in Michigan that the mandate is constitutional. There are a lot of roads to the high court being traveled right now; the chief point of interest in all these lower-court decisions is seeing which one will get ObamaCare there the fastest.

A federal judge ruled Thursday that parts of a lawsuit by 20 states seeking to void the Obama administration’s health care overhaul can go to trial, saying he wants hear additional arguments from both sides over whether the law is unconstitutional.

In a written ruling, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson said it needs to be decided whether the plan violates the Constitution by requiring individuals to have health insurance or be penalized through taxes and by overburdening the states by expanding their Medicaid programs. Another federal judge in Michigan threw out a similar lawsuit last week…

The administration’s attorneys had told Vinson last month that without the regulatory power to ensure young and healthy people buy health insurance, the health care plan will not survive. They also argued it’s up to an individual taxpayer — not the states — to challenge the section requiring health insurance when it takes effect in 2015.

Here’s a list of the six counts alleged in the complaint. The first three dealing with the mandate are the sexy ones, but counts four, five, and six — arguing that the feds are basically trying to “commandeer” the states in enforcing this — are interesting as a federalist appeal to the conservative majority on the Court. One of the most famous federalist decisions of the Rehnquist Court is Printz v. United States, which announced the anti-commandeering doctrine; Scalia, Thomas, and most importantly Kennedy all joined in the majority opinion. The state attorneys general who filed this suit obviously are hoping that even if the Court finds the mandate okay on Commerce Clause grounds, the Printz case and the Tenth Amendment will ride to the rescue and give them a reason to find it unconstitutional anyway. In theory, the fact that those arguments are present in this suit but not the one in Michigan last week makes today’s ruling important: If this one gets to the Supremes rather than that one, they’ll have more arguments against ObamaCare to consider. Problem is, no one seriously believes that the Court is going to be bound on a subject as momentous as the constitutionality of universal health insurance by whatever happens in the lower courts. Yes, in theory, they’re supposed to follow whatever the factual findings are at the district court level, etc, but in practice of course they’ll deal with this as a matter of first impression. No big deal really, then, about today’s ruling. Although moral victories are certainly always nice.

Update: Here’s a passage from the decision for the Supremes to consider quoting if the conservatives end up in the majority on this one.

In his ruling, Vinson criticized Democrats for seeking to have it both ways when it comes to defending the mandate to buy insurance. During the legislative debate, Republicans chastised the proposal as a new tax on the middle class. Obama defended the payment as a penalty and not a tax, but the Justice Department has argued that legally, it’s a tax.

“Congress should not be permitted to secure and cast politically difficult votes on controversial legislation by deliberately calling something one thing, after which the defenders of that legislation take an “Alice-in-Wonderland” tack and argue in court that Congress really meant something else entirely, thereby circumventing the safeguard that exists to keep their broad power in check,” he wrote.

Vinson ruled that it’s a penalty, not a tax, and must be defended under the Commerce Clause and not Congress’ taxing authority.