Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Healthcare Hurdle

A federal judge in Virginia has declared that the individual mandate portion of the new healthcare law is unconstitutional.

A federal judge in Virginia ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for the government to compel Americans to buy health insurance, marking the first time a court has struck down any facet of the massive new law to overhaul the nation’s health-care system.

Although the opinion by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson gives significant political ammunition to the law’s opponents, it does not invalidate the entire law or force federal and state officials to stop the work of putting it into effect – steps Virginia had asked him to take.

The ruling by Hudson, named to the bench by George W. Bush, sets up a conflict with opinions by two Democratic-appointed judges who have concluded recently that the law is constitutional. The cases are among two dozen in federal courts across the country that challenge many aspects of the law. The final word is widely expected to come from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In his 42-page opinion, Hudson concluded that requiring most people to get insurance or pay a fine – as the law mandates starting in 2014 – is an unprecedented expansion of federal power and cannot be justified under Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce.

This is not as bad as it sounds. The bill is still intact, it can go forward, and two other courts have found that the law passes constitutional muster.

Some noise has been made about the judge, Henry E. Hudson, and his ties to right-wing causes including a consulting firm that rallied support to get the law he ruled on yesterday overturned. Given the fact that unless the judge committed reversal error in his conduct of the case or it can be proven that he was bought off, the accusations of bias are a bit of a grasp. That’s a tactic the right-wing uses whenever a ruling they don’t like gets handed down, and liberal or conservative, a federal judge is going to have a political history.

The news gladdened the hearts of people who have been against the bill, leading Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to proclaim, “Today is a great day for liberty. Congress must obey the Constitution rather than make it up as we go along. Liberty requires limits on government, and today those limits have been upheld.” This is a rather ironic statement from Mr. Hatch, seeing as how he once co-sponsored a healthcare bill with an individual mandate. It is also a provision of the Massachusetts healthcare bill sponsored and signed by Mitt Romney, and a whole lot of other Republicans. So either they suddenly all took classes in right-wing constitutional law — the basic premise being that if they like it it’s legal and if they don’t it’s not — or they are shameless hacks and hope that no one notices.

HT to Steve Benen.