In a federal lawsuit brought by the Attorneys General and/or Governors of twenty-six states,1 two private citizens and the National Federation of Independent Business against the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Treasury, Department of Labor and their secretaries, a District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)2 was unconstitutional.3 More specifically, in a 78-page order granting the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson found that Congress lacked authority under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to enact the “individual mandate” of Section 1501 of PPACA—a mandate currently scheduled to take effect in 2014 that would require individuals to obtain health insurance coverage or pay a monetary penalty. Judge Vinson opined that the Commerce Clause did not permit the regulation of inactivity, and thus Congress could not rely upon it in enacting the “individual mandate” of PPACA.
It would be a radical departure from existing case law to hold that Congress can regulate inactivity under the Commerce Clause. If it has the power to compel an otherwise passive individual into a commercial transaction with a third party merely by asserting—as was done in the Act—that compelling the actual transaction is itself “commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce” [see Act § 1501(a)(1)], it is not hyperbolizing to suggest that Congress could do almost anything it wanted. It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place. If Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain for it would be “difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power” [Lopez, supra, 514 U.S. at 564], and we would have a Constitution in name only.
Further, because he found that the individual mandate could not be severed from the rest of PPACA, Judge Vinson concluded the entire statute was therefore unconstitutional.
The State of Florida decision marks the second time that a federal district court has rendered an opinion that held that the Commerce Clause does not authorize Congress to impose the individual mandate. However, in the other case, Commonwealth of Virginia v. Sebelius, Case No. 3:10-cv-188 (E.D. Va. December 13, 2010), U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson ruled that the individual mandate was invalid, but did not find PPACA to be unconstitutional. Meanwhile, a federal district court in Michigan, Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, Case No. 10-cv-11156 (E.D. Mich. October 7, 2010) and another federal district court in Virginia, Life University Inc. v. Geithner, Case No. 6:10-cv-15 (W.D. Va. November 30, 2010) reached opposite conclusions by finding the individual mandate constitutional.
The Thomas Law Center decision is currently on appeal before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Life University Inc. decision is on appeal in the Fourth Circuit. The most recent decisions, State of Florida and Commonwealth of Virginia, are headed to the appellate courts as well. All of these cases will likely continue through to the United States Supreme Court.