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US judge rules health care law unconstitutional

Obama officials say Fla. ruling to be appealed

Judge Roger Vinson ruled that Congress cannot force individuals to buy health insurance, but stayed the ruling. Judge Roger Vinson ruled that Congress cannot force individuals to buy health insurance, but stayed the ruling.
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / February 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Florida said in a sweeping ruling yesterday that President Obama’s health care overhaul is unconstitutional because the government cannot force individuals to buy health insurance.

The ruling, which backs a lawsuit brought by 26 states seeking to overturn the 2010 law, had been expected, and it represents the second ruling against the individual mandate. However, unlike a previous ruling in Virginia, which focused narrowly on the legality of the mandate, Judge Roger Vinson yesterday declared that the entire law should be struck down if higher courts confirm his opinion.

“The act, like a defectively designed watch, needs to be redesigned and reconstructed by the watchmaker,’’ Vinson wrote.

He ruled, however, that the law could remain in effect until appeals from the Obama administration are finished. That process is expected to take up to two years; most specialists anticipate that the US Supreme Court will be the final arbitrator.

Vinson’s ruling was not a surprise. The judge, nominated for the federal bench in 1983 by President Reagan, a Republican, had hinted in earlier writings that the individual mandate has no precedent in US law. But the breadth of his ruling and the scope of the case, representing governors and attorneys general from more than half of the states, bolster its political significance.

The ruling is a political setback for the Obama administration, which has been rolling out elements of the law even as it aggressively defends the overall package from a repeal attempt by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The House passed a repeal bill last month; Democratic leaders in the Senate have said they will let the repeal bill die without action.

House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, seized on the Florida ruling to pressure Democrats to act on the repeal legislation. “The House has passed legislation to do just that, and I hope Senate Democratic leaders will bring up the measure for an up-or-down vote,’’ Boehner said in a statement.

The Tea Party movement, which made a priority of repealing the health care overhaul dubbed “Obamacare,’’ looked at the ruling as a positive step on the road to the Supreme Court.

“We’ll be happy to see this law go and we look forward to the Supreme Court siding with the Constitution,’’ said Shelby Blakely, a spokeswoman for the national Tea Party Patriots, in an interview yesterday.

The individual mandate, which will require most Americans to have medical insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty, is the heart of the health reform package, which is known as the Affordable Care Act. The mandate is designed to bring more young and healthy people into the insurance pool to help offset the costs of requiring insurance companies to cover everyone, even people with preexisting medical conditions.

The judge ruled yesterday that the broadly interpreted commerce clause of the Constitution does not allow the Congress to require people to buy a specific product, in this case medical insurance.

The ruling, like the one in Virginia, does not threaten the Massachusetts health care law, which also requires that residents buy health insurance. The ability of individual states to regulate commerce and impose tax penalties within their own borders is not in dispute.

The Obama administration kicked into high gear to downplay the ruling. Senior administration officials called it an “outlier’’ riddled with weak reasoning that will not withstand appeal.

The Department of Justice will appeal the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. “We strongly disagree with the court’s ruling . . . and continue to believe — as other federal courts have found — that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional.’’

Supporters of the health care law blasted the ruling.

“This is judicial activism on steroids,’’ said Ethan Rome, director of Health Care for America Now, in a statement. “Fortunately, the US Supreme Court will have the final say . . . and it has corrected such lower-court mistakes when other major laws like Social Security, the minimum wage law, and the Voting Rights Act were passed.’’

Not all specialists believe the law is destined for the Supreme Court if the appeals courts side with the president.

“I think that the court may be reluctant to interfere with a statute that will be so far implemented’’ by the time the circuit court appeals are done, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor.

Mark Arsenault be reached at marsenault@globe.com