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Judge strikes down entire new health-care law

Publication Date: 
February 01, 2011
Washington Post
N.C. Aizenman and Amy Goldstein

Assistant Professor of Law David Freeman Engstrom assessed the impact of the decision by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, which declared the federal health-care law unconstitutional. The Washington Post reports:

A federal judge in Florida on Monday became the first to strike down the entire law to overhaul the nation's health-care system, potentially complicating implementation of the statute in the 26 states that brought the suit. The decision by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson represents a more sweeping repudiation of the law than the December ruling in a suit brought by Virginia that found the requirement that most Americans purchase health insurance to be unconstitutional.

As the judge ruled in the Virginia case, Vinson held that Congress overstepped its authority by compelling nearly all Americans to be insured or pay a fine. But Vinson went further: Likening the law to "a finely crafted watch" in which "one essential piece is defective and must be removed," he ruled that the insurance mandate cannot be separated from the rest of the statute and therefore the entire law must be voided.


Even as he struck down the statute as a whole, Vinson rejected the plaintiffs' arguments against the part of the law that will expand Medicaid, the public insurance program for the poor and disabled that is jointly funded by the states and the federal government. The states contended that the expansion, to begin in 2014, infringes on their sovereignty. Vincent sided with the federal government, which argued that there is no infringement because states have the choice whether to participate in Medicaid. The Virginia case did not address the Medicaid issue.


David Engstrom, a Stanford Law School faculty member, said that he does not interpret the opinion as preventing the law from going forward. "The issue that the court has ruled on has been specifically contradicted by two other district courts," he said. "So, the idea that the Obama administration should somehow stand down from implementing the act, based on a fourth district court, doesn't have any basis in law."

In his 78-page opinion, Vinson, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, offered the most lengthy consideration to date of the legal questions at issue. Specifically, he agreed with the states' argument that a person's refusal to buy health insurance does not amount to economic activity and is therefore beyond Congress's power to regulate under the Constitution's commerce clause.