AUSTIN — Upholding a legal challenge from Texas and 25 other states, a federal judge in Florida declared President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare law unconstitutional Monday, saying Congress overstepped its power by requiring Americans to buy health insurance.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson was the latest in a series of conflicting legal opinions that will ultimately be resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court, legal experts said. The law has also been declared unconstitutional by a federal court in Virginia, whereas courts in Florida and Michigan have upheld it.
Accepting a fundamental claim in the states’ lawsuit, Vinson said Congress “exceeded the bounds of its authority” by requiring Americans to have insurance by 2014. He also ruled that the “individual mandate” could not be stripped out to make the statute constitutional, thus voiding the entire law.
“Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the entire Act must be declared void,” Vinson wrote in his 78-page ruling. “This has been a difficult decision to reach, and I am aware that it will have indeterminable implications.”
Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders have derisively labeled the law as “ObamaCare,” saying it would have a devastating financial impact when its requirements are implemented in Texas. The Lone Star State entered the legal challenge in March 2010 when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott joined other states in the Florida-based lawsuit.
“Today’s ruling represents a victory in the ongoing effort to end federal intrusion into the lives of every American through this one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare reform,” Perry said. Abbott hailed the ruling as “great day for liberty and the vitality of the U.S. Constitution.”
Abbott said the individual mandate would mark the first time in history that the government would force Americans to enter into contracts and purchase services from private companies or face a penalty.
Vinson ruled that the mandate “is neither within the letter or the spirit of the Constitution.”
The next step is an appeal before the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Abbott said.
But legal experts say the ultimate outcome will be decided by the Supreme Court in what could likely be a historic ruling on healthcare and Congress’ powers under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.
Texas supporters of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act say it would benefit as many as 6.1 million Texans who have little or no texas health insurance. Twenty-five percent of Texas’ population does not have health insurance, the highest percentage among the states.
“It’s disconcerting that [Attorney] General Abbott is actively working to dismantle a law that will improve the health coverage that Texans already had and help countless others purchase insurance,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.. “This court case is nothing but a political sideshow.”
White House officials said that they don’t think the opinion will slow down implementation of the law, and that it’s far from the last word on the legal battle.
The suit was filed minutes after Obama signed the bill into law, achieving one of his biggest domestic goals. after an acrimonious debate. In Texas, opponents said the law would double state healthcare costs and deepen state budget problems while supporters said it was desperately needed to extend the reach of insurance converge in the nation’s second-largest state.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has predicted that 2 million more people will sign up for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program because of the new federal law.
Political leaders and lawmakers from Washington to Austin predictably broke along party lines in reacting to the ruling. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, and Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn praised the decision and vowed to step up efforts to repeal the law.
“This fight is far from over, and I know Texas will keep fighting this battle,” said Burgess, a doctor.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the ruling “one of many” and said opponents of the bill are “using every means to undermine patients’ rights.”