Supreme Court may weigh coverage mandate
Health care reform now in court's hands
The same Supreme Court justices whom President Obama blasted during his State of the Union address this year may ultimately decide the fate of his crowning achievement as more than a dozen states have called on the courts to strike down the health insurance mandate of Democrats' health care overhaul - a move that would threaten the entire law.
Two major constitutional challenges have been levied against the new law, one by the state of Virginia, which enacted a law exempting its citizens from the federal health insurance mandate, and another by Florida and 12 other states. Legal scholars are divided on the merits of the cases, and even Congress - through its research service and its budget scorekeeper - has said it's an open question whether the provision could pass constitutional muster.
At issue is the scope of the federal government's power over states and individuals. Critics of the law say the requirement that all Americans buy insurance or pay a fine, if allowed, would mean that Congress has virtually boundless authority to compel actions. Proponents argue that legal precedents support an expansive reading of the legislative branch's license to regulate such activity.
"This is one of the most consequential lawsuits in our generation," said Baker Hostetler lawyer David B. Rivkin Jr., who is serving as outside counsel to the 13 states that have filed suit. "The fact you have so many different state attorneys general, Republicans and Democrats, from a variety of states coming together to do this just underscores how strongly they feel that the act infringes core constitutional interests of their respective states."
The mandate, which doesn't take effect until 2014, is central to Democrats' goal of insuring about 32 million more Americans. The law would offer tax credits to low-income individuals and allow young adults to remain on their parents' policies longer.
Both of the state lawsuits challenge the federal government's authority under the Commerce Clause, which grants Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states. The Florida case also cites a violation of the 10th Amendment, which reserves those powers not spelled out under the federal government in the Constitution to the state governments, and argues that the health care law's expansion of state Medicaid programs threatens state sovereignty.
Among the arguments against the law is that because it does not allow for purchasing insurance across state lines - the insurance exchanges are state-based - the buying of health insurance does not constitute interstate commerce. In addition, the plaintiffs say, not purchasing health insurance does not constitute an economic activity.
"Thus far in our history, it has never been held that the Commerce Clause, even when aided by the Necessary and Proper Clause, can be used to require citizens to buy goods or services," Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II argues in his state's lawsuit. "To depart from that history to permit the national government to require the purchase of goods or services would ... create powers indistinguishable from a general police power in total derogation of our constitutional scheme of enumerated powers."
While a requirement to buy health insurance might be new, some legal analysts say, Congress can in fact define an economic activity as something that results from not taking an action.
"The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits hotels and restaurants from discriminating based on race and thus prohibits inactivity," said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law, noting that law relied upon the Commerce Clause. "The Supreme Court has said that Congress can regulate economic activity that has a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Buying or refusing to buy insurance is economic activity. The effect on the economy is enormous."