Atlanta A federal appeals panel struck down the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s sweeping health care overhaul Friday, moving the argument over whether Americans can be required to buy health insurance a step closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The divided three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded Congress overstepped its authority when lawmakers passed the so-called individual mandate, the first such decision by a federal appeals court. It’s a stinging blow to Obama’s signature legislative achievement, as most experts agree the requirement that Americans carry health insurance — or face tax penalties — is the foundation for other parts of the law.
Chief Judge Joel Dubina and Circuit Judge Frank Hull found in a 207-page opinion that lawmakers cannot require residents to “enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die.”
In a lengthy dissent, Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus accused the majority of ignoring the “undeniable fact that Congress’ commerce power has grown exponentially over the past two centuries.” He wrote that Congress generally has the constitutional authority to create rules regulating large areas of the national economy.
The White House argued the legislative branch was using a “quintessential” power — its constitutional ability to regulate interstate commerce, including the health care industry — when it passed the overhaul law. Administration officials said they are confident the ruling will not stand.
The Justice Department can ask the full 11th Circuit to review the panel’s ruling and will also likely appeal to the Supreme Court.
“Individuals who choose to go without health insurance are making an economic decision that affects all of us — when people without insurance obtain health care they cannot pay for, those with insurance and taxpayers are often left to pick up the tab,” said White House adviser Stephanie Cutter.
Legal observers long expected the case would ultimately land in the Supreme Court, but experts said Friday’s ruling could finally force the justices to take the case.
“There needs to be a pronouncement that’s nationwide,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “It would be almost impossible to implement it if we have splintered decisions from different geographic circuits. The Supreme Court may feel now it has to take it.”
J. Peter Rich, a Los Angeles-based health care attorney, said the Supreme Court had never weighed in on an issue such as the provision requiring individuals to buy health insurance.
Rich said it’s not unconstitutional for individual states to have such requirements, noting that Massachusetts has a similar law in place.