By KEVIN SACK
Published: March 04, 2011
A federal judge in Florida stayed his own ruling against the Obama health care law on Thursday, allowing the act to be carried out as the case progresses through the Courts of Appeal and on to the Supreme Court.
The judge, making evident his irritation with the Obama administration, sought to speed the process by conditioning the stay on the Justice Department’s pursuit of an expedited appeal, which he ordered filed within seven days.
“The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be,” wrote the judge, Roger Vinson of Federal District Court in Pensacola. “And yet, it has been more than one month from the entry of my order and judgment and still the defendants have not filed their notice of appeal.”
The stay – essentially a suspension of the judge’s order pending appeals – settles the confusion that arose after Judge Vinson ruled on Jan. 31 that a central provision of the law was unconstitutional, and that the rest of the law – the Affordable Care Act – must fall with it.
Judge Vinson had written that his ruling should be viewed as the “functional equivalent” of an injunction, which would typically stop the law in its tracks.
But the Obama administration did not immediately cease carrying out the law and, rather than seek a stay, asked the judge to clarify his ruling. States were unsure how to proceed, with some stopping all planning and others acting as if nothing had changed.
That began to change quickly with the issuance of Judge Vinson’s stay on Thursday.
Gov. Sean Parnell of Alaska, a Republican who announced last month that his state would not put in effect the health law in light of Judge Vinson’s ruling, said Thursday that “our administration will treat the federal health care law as being in place.”
Judge Vinson is one of two federal judges who have ruled that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce when it enacted a law that requires most Americans to obtain health insurance (starting in 2014). The Pensacola case was brought by elected officials from 26 states, all but one of them Republicans, and by the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small firms.
Only Judge Vinson has declared the entire act void, including provisions that have already taken effect, like requirements that insurers cover children regardless of pre-existing conditions. Three other federal judges, meanwhile, have upheld the law.
Judge Vinson wrote Thursday that his initial order “was as clear and unambiguous as it could be” and that the federal government had no right “to basically ignore” it.
He said he had expected the Justice Department, which represents the administration, to immediately seek a stay of his ruling. He said that in order “to save time in this time-is-of-the-essence case,” he would treat the government’s motion to clarify as a request for a stay. And then he granted it.
In a 20-page order, Judge Vinson wrote that “reasonable and intelligent people (and reasonable and intelligent jurists) can disagree” about the constitutionality of the insurance requirement. The judge ruled that the act of not purchasing insurance is not an activity that can, under Supreme Court precedent, be penalized by Congress. Justice Department lawyers have countered that not buying insurance is an active decision, with significant implications for the health care market, that can therefore be regulated.
Because that legal question has not been addressed directly by the Supreme Court, Judge Vinson acknowledged that the government had some chance of prevailing on appeal, a primary requirement for a stay.
“It is likely that the Courts of Appeal will also reach divergent results and that, as most court watchers predict, the Supreme Court may eventually split on this issue as well,” Judge Vinson wrote. “Despite what partisans for or against the individual mandate might suggest, this litigation presents a question with some strong and compelling arguments on both sides.”
The judge also wrote that the confusion caused by enjoining the health care law would outweigh any potential harm to the states caused by its continuation.
“We appreciate the court’s recognition of the enormous disruption that would have resulted if implementation of the Affordable Care Act was abruptly halted,” said Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
Ms. Schmaler said a request for an expedited appeal would be filed “promptly” with the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. Appeals in other cases are already pending in two different courts, with oral arguments scheduled as early as May.
Attorney General Pam Bondi of Florida, the lead plaintiff in the Pensacola case, said in a statement that she was disappointed that Judge Vinson had granted the stay. But she said his insistence on an expedited appeal ensured “that there will be no more stalling from the federal government.”