WASHINGTON—A conservative-leaning appeals court panel on Tuesday upheld the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's health care law, as the Supreme Court prepares to consider this week whether to resolve conflicting rulings over the law's requirement that all Americans buy health care insurance.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a split opinion upholding the lower court's ruling that found Congress did not overstep its authority in requiring people to have insurance or pay a penalty on their taxes, beginning in 2014. The requirement is the most controversial requirement of Obama's signature domestic legislative achievement and the focus of conflicting opinions from judges across the country. The Supreme Court could decide as early as Thursday during a closed meeting of the justices whether to accept appeals from some of those earlier rulings.
The suit in Washington was brought by the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. It claimed that the insurance mandate is unconstitutional because it forces Americans to buy a product for the rest of their lives and that it violates the religious freedom of those who choose not to have insurance because they rely on God to protect them from harm. But the court ruled that Congress had the power to pass the requirement to ensure that all Americans can have health care coverage, even if it infringes on individual liberty.
"That a direct requirement for most Americans to purchase any product or service seems an intrusive exercise of legislative power surely explains why Congress has not used this authority before -- but that seems to us a political judgment rather than a recognition of constitutional limitations," Judge Laurence Silberman, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan wrote in the court's opinion. Silberman was joined by Judge Harry Edwards, a Carter appointee. But, they added, "The right to be free from federal regulation is not absolute and yields to the imperative that Congress be free to forge national solutions to national problems."
Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a former aide to President George W. Bush who appointed him to the bench, disagreed with the conclusion without taking a position on the merits of the law. He wrote a lengthy opinion arguing the court doesn't have jurisdiction to review the health care mandate until after it takes effect in 2014.
The federal appeals court in Cincinnati also upheld the law. The federal appeals court in Atlanta struck down the core requirement that Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty, while upholding the rest of the law.
And like Kavanaugh's dissenting opinion, an appeals court in Richmond, Va., ruled it was premature to decide the law's constitutionality. This aspect of the court challenges issue involves a federal law aimed at preventing lawsuits from tying up tax collection. Kavanaugh and the Richmond court held that taxpayers must begin paying the penalty for not purchasing insurance before they can challenge it in court.
Kevin Walsh, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who has been tracking the challenges, said the ruling in support of the law by a solid conservative like Silberman puts to rest the idea that ideology is controlling the judges' votes on the politically-charged issue.
"It also shows that careful reasoning by judges has led to different conclusions in the courts, which suggests that the Supreme Court has its work cut out for it," said Walsh, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He also said Kavanaugh's dissent along with the Virginia court's ruling shows the issue of ripeness is live for the high court to consider.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which filed the suit in Washington, said the group is considering whether to ask the full appeals court to hear the case or make a request directly to the Supreme Court. "We still remain confident that Obamacare and the individual mandate, which forces Americans to purchase health insurance, is the wrong prescription for America and ultimately will be struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court," Sekulow said.