In Florida, Health Care Reform Once Again Before A Judge

BY Lea Winerman  December 16, 2010 at 9:50 AM EDT

Updated 5:30 p.m.

Attorneys for the federal government and for 20 states made their cases about the constitutionality of the health care reform law in three hours of arguments before U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson Thursday.

David Rivkin, an attorney for the states, told Vinson that the law “would leave more constitutional damage in its wake than any other statute in our history,” the Associated Press reported.

Rivkin argued that the constitution does not give Congress the authority to require individuals to buy any product, including health insurance.

But during his statement, Ian Gershengorn, a Justice Department lawyer, said that health insurance is “a financing mechanism,” not a product.

“It’s not shoes. It’s not cars. It’s not broccoli,” he said, according to Bloomberg.

The judge said that he would issue his decision “as quickly as possible” but did not give a set timeline.

After the hearing, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and Texas Attorney Greg Abbott spoke to reporters.

Reporter Kimberly Vlach from HealthyState.org, a Florida public media project, got some on-the-ground reaction to the case from Florida residents.

Updated 9:50 a.m.

Health care reform is once again being considered in court Thursday. Just three days after a federal judge in Virginia ruled a key provision in the new law unconstitutional, the action moves to Pensacola, Fla., where federal judge Roger Vinson will hear arguments in a case brought by the attorneys general of 20 states.

The group, which is led by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, will argue that the law oversteps the federal government’s authority.

As in the Virginia case, one of the key points of contention is the individual mandate — the requirement that nearly all Americans purchase health insurance beginning in 2014. The federal government will argue that Congress has the power to enact the individual mandate under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which allows legislators to regulate interstate commerce. But opponents say that the decision not to buy health insurance is economic inactivity, and so the clause doesn’t apply.

This is the fourth time the individual mandate has been examined in court. On Monday, a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional in a case brought by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli . But two other judges, in Michigan and Virginia, have upheld the provision.

Supporters of the individual mandate argue that the decision not to buy health insurance is a form of economic activity, because everyone will need health care at some point in their life, and emergency rooms will treat everyone regardless of ability to pay. Therefore if someone chooses not to buy health insurance, taxpayers may end up paying for their treatment later.

Still, the individual mandate is one of the least popular provisions in the new law. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll (PDF) found that 68 percent of Americans want to see it repealed.

The case being heard today in Florida also makes another argument — which the Virginia case did not — that the portion of the law that will expand Medicaid is also unconstitutional, because it will force states to spend “unaffordable” amounts of money on the program.

Many analysts expect Judge Vinson to rule against the health reform law, because he was appointed by a Republican president, and because he seemed sympathetic to those arguments in an October decision when he allowed the case to move forward.

Opponents of the law are hoping that Judge Vinson will rule to stop the entire bill from being enacted. That’s a step further than Judge Henry Hudson’s ruling in Virginia — he only declared the individual mandate unconstitutional.

So far, the two judges who have ruled in favor of the law have been Democratic appointees, and Judge Hudson is a Republican appointee who has been active in GOP politics. The cases have revived debate about judges’ political biases, NPR reports.

Regardless of which way the Florida ruling goes, the losing side will appeal the decision and the issue will almost certainly ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.

We’ll have more after the hearing wraps up today.