Thursday, March 3, 2011

Judge Vinson Stays Ruling Declaring Federal Health Care Reform Unconstitutional

Judge Vinson (N.D. Fla.) on Thursday stayed his ruling that the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act was unconstitutional.  (Recall that Judge Vinson ruled in January that the individual health insurance mandate exceeded congressional authority and was unseverable from the rest of the Act; therefore, he ruled, the whole thing was unconstitutional.  But he stopped short of issuing an injunction, instead assuming that the government would treat his declaratory ruling as an injunction.)

Yesterday's ruling in Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services was highly critical of the government for claiming it misunderstood the earlier "clear" ruling and for filing a "motion to clarify," not a motion to stay.  Judge Vinson wrote:

So to "clarify" my order and judgment: The individual mandate was declared unconstitutional.  Because that "essential" provision was unseverable from the rest of the Act, the entire legislation was void.  This declaratory judgment was expected to be treated as the "practical" and "functional equivalent of an injunction" with respect to the parties to the litigation.  This expectation was based on the "long-standing presumption" that the defendants themselves identified and agreed to be bound by, which provides that a declaratory judgment against federal officials is a de facto injunction.  To the extent that the defendants were unable (or believed that they were unable) to comply, it was expected that they would immediately seek a stay of the ruling, which is the usual and standard procedure.  It was not expected that they would effectively ignore the order and declaratory judgment for two and one-half weeks, continue to implement the Act, and only then file a belated motion to "clarify."

Op. at 14.  Judge Vinson treated the government's motion as a motion to stay and granted it, on the condition that the government appeal within 7 calendar days and seeking an expedited appeal.

Judge Vinson recognized that his original position would have put some plaintiff-states in an unusual position.  For example, the State of Michigan, as a plaintiff in the case, would have been subject to his original ruling, and the federal government would have been prevented from implementing the Act there.  But another federal district court in Michigan ruled the Act constitutional.  In other plaintiff-states, state attorneys general disagreed with state governors.  Yet other plaintiff-states declined to stop implementation pending appeal.


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