Judge Roger Vinson

  • April 18, 2011

    The individual responsibility provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), much-attacked by Tea Party radicals as an outrageous overreach by the federal government, is well within Congress’s taxing power, states a recently filed amicus brief in Florida v. HHS.

    In a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, attorneys for SEIU and Change to Win focus on the constitutional authority of Congress to enact taxes. The individual responsibility provision, which requires some people to purchase a certain amount of health care coverage starting in 2014, works as a “tax on income” that “falls squarely within Congress’ ‘complete and all-embracing taxing power,’” the attorneys state.  

    While many constitutional law experts, and other amicus briefs, argue that Congress’s power to regulate commerce is the constitutional underpinning for the ACA’s individual responsibility provision, the SEIU-Change to Win amicus brief says congressional taxing power sufficiently supports the law’s constitutionality, and that it does not matter what form the tax takes.

    “It is constitutionally irrelevant that Congress did not name the assessment a ‘tax’ or otherwise expressly invoke its taxing authority in” the text of the ACA, the brief states. “Courts have repeatedly ruled that whether an enactment is valid exercise of Congress’ constitutional powers rests on its substance, not its name.”

    In January, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled in favor of the Florida Attorney General’s challenge to the health care reform law, saying the individual responsibility provision was beyond the power of Congress to enact, and therefore the entire law must be invalidated. Vinson’s opinion sparked rebukes from many national constitutional law experts. Yale Law School Professor  Akhil Reed Amar said after reading Judge Vinson’s ruing he concluded that his students “understand the Constitution better than the judge.”

    The SEIU-Change to Win amicus brief argues that Judge Vinson relied, in part, on Supreme Court precedent that has long been discarded. “Congress has ample authority under its taxing power to assess a tax on the income of those who decline to purchase health insurance,” the brief states. “It is for elected legislators – not judges – to evaluate the wisdom of such an income tax.”

    The brief also notes that the revenue mechanism of the ACA is not far removed from those of other landmark social reform legislation that the Supreme Court has addressed.

    The brief states:

    From a constitutional perspective, the tax imposed by the minimum coverage provision is no different from the unemployment and old age insurance system Congress established through the Social Security Act. The constitutional propriety of that exercise of Congress’ taxation power is beyond dispute; there is no basis to treat this income tax any differently.

    Click here to read the groups’ entire amicus brief.

    Legal scholars have argued that the ACA’s individual responsibility provision is also constitutional under Congress’s power to regulate commerce.

    In an amicus brief filed earlier this month in the Eleventh Circuit on behalf of Yale Law School Professor Jack M. Balkin and Columbia Law School Professors Gillian E. Metzger and Trevor W. Morrison, attorneys also argued the constitutionality of the ACA pursuant to Congress’s power to regulate commerce and its taxing power.

    The professors’ amicus brief states:

    Congress’s taxing power is exceedingly broad. The Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed the taxing power’s reach and has consistently held that a tax is valid so long as it serves the general welfare, is reasonably related to revenue raising, and does not violate any independent constitutional prohibition. The Court has also repeatedly affirmed that the taxing power is not limited to subjects within Congress’s other enumerated powers and that a tax is not invalid simply because it has a regulatory purpose or effect. The Minimum Coverage Fee Provision plainly satisfies the standard for legitimate exercises of the taxing power.

    The professors’ brief is available here.  

    For resources and new developments in all the legal challenges to the ACA, see ACS’s “The Affordable Care Act Resource Page: Tracking Legal Challenges & Other Attacks on the Health Care Reform Law.”

  • March 7, 2011

    Those interested in monitoring how the Supreme Court will rule on challenges to the Affordable Care Act should mark their calendars now for the last week in June of 2012, former acting solicitor general Walter Dellinger, chair of the appellate practice at O'Melveny & Myers, said during an ACS discussion about challenges to implementation of the health care law.

    And on that June  day when the Supreme Court does issue a decision, Chief Justice John Roberts will join the majority to uphold the law, Dellinger predicted.

    "I think at the end of the day Chief Justice Roberts will be in the majority to uphold this," Dellinger said. "He is thinking of a very long philosophical position as a chief justice and he would not want to adopt a principle that said that 25 or 30 or 40 years from now, the only way Congress could deal with a social problem is by providing a monolithic, single, governmental bureaucratic approach, rather than creating incentives for people to utilize choices within the free market. Why would someone who has grown up with conservative principles want to adopt that?"

    The panel discussion featured a keynote address by former Senator Tom Daschle, who predicted that, even if all goes well in implementing the Affordable Care Act, it will take at least a generation before the law fulfills its potential. But, he continued, it's potential worth fighting for.

    "This is a fight for the equality and the liberty of all Americans and their moral right to health security at long last," he said.

    As the debate that followed his remarks got under way, news broke that U.S. District Court Roger Vinson had issued a seven-day stay of his decision in Florida federal court striking down the health care law, allowing the Department of Justice time to appeal.

    "I think what's most important is that we have the news that we've just had, which is that the Vinson decision has actually been stayed," Center for American Progress Chief Operating Officer Neera Tanden said in response to the news. She continued:

  • February 28, 2011
    Republican lawmakers' efforts to force the Supreme Court to quickly rule on the constitutionality of the landmark health care reform's individual responsibility provision [or the individual mandate] is "almost entirely bogus," write Simon Lazarus and Timothy Jost in an article for Slate.

    The Affordable Care Act's opponents claim that an extraordinarily quick opinion from the Supreme Court on the law is crucial to "avoid unnecessary ‘daunting and costly financial regulatory burdens implementing [the ACA] over the coming year," write Lazarus, author of the recent ACS Issue Brief on the radical efforts the law's opponents are advancing, and Jost, law professor Washington and Lee University.

    Judge Roger Vinson ruled against the individual responsibility provision in late January and said the entire law contained too many parts for him to determine which ones could function with or without the individual responsibility provision in place. The Department of Justice has lodged a "Motion to Clarify," asking Vinson if his opinion halted the implementation of the entire health care law. Vinson, as noted by Lazarus and Jost, is expected to rule this week on that motion, which could if Vinson "rebuffs" the administration's motion send the case quickly to the federal appeals court.

    The authors maintain that quick legal rulings, especially one from the Supreme Court, are unnecessary and unwise.

    Lazarus and Jost continue:

    While it's true that, as of this moment, three district judges have upheld the mandate, and two, including Vinson, have struck it down, the overwhelming majority of state governments are proceeding right along, pocketing the benefits and undertaking the responsibilities prescribed by the ACA.

    As noted in the Justice Department's ‘Motion to Clarify,' 25 plaintiff states (all but Alaska) have already applied for and been awarded federal grants to set up the ‘exchanges' necessary to give individuals not covered by group health plans access to affordable insurance. Twenty-two plaintiff states have been awarded a total of $22 million to create or improve oversight of health-insurance premium increases. And 12 plaintiff states have contracted with HHS to run federally funded high-risk insurance pools established by the act.

    Beyond its uselessness, a speedy route to the Supreme Court "deprives the justices of the sorting-out process that multiple lower-court decisions can provide over time, especially helpful in a complex and controversial case like this one."

    The authors, in part, conclude:

    But - far worse than the loss of intermediate appellate review - premature Supreme Court intervention would also pre-empt the ongoing policy and political debate about the new law, and the individual mandate in particular. Active public and academic discussion about a number of issues is now raging over whether the mandate is indeed essential for its most central mission - ensuring affordable coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions, whether other, more flexible incentive mechanisms could be nearly as effective (and be enacted); or whether the public will in time accept the connection between the mandate (of which a majority disapprove) and pre-existing conditions protection (which is highly popular).

    The entire Slate article is available here.

    Some of the "active public" discussion over the constitutionality of the health care law will take place March 3 at an event hosted by ACS. The event will include a keynote address by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle and a panel discussion, in which Lazarus will participate.

  • February 18, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Simon Lazarus, Public Policy Counsel for the National Senior Citizens Law Center, and author of the ACS Issue Briefs, "The Health Care Lawsuits: Unraveling A Century of Constitutional Law and The Fabric of Modern American Government." and "Mandatory Health Insurance: Is it Constitutional?"

    In a procedural motion that may prove more significant than its low-key framing may suggest at first glance, the Department of Justice this week filed a "Motion To Clarify" with Judge Roger Vinson of the Northern District of Florida in Pensacola. The Motion asked the judge to "clarify" that his two-and-a-half-week old January 31 declaratory judgment invalidating the "individual mandate" or "individual responsibility provision" of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) "does not relieve the parties of their rights and obligations [under the ACA]" until appeals are exhausted. In this case, that date is unlikely to occur without a definitive Supreme Court ruling, perhaps two years from now. 

  • February 7, 2011
    The criticism continues to mount over U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson's ruling in the Florida Attorney General's legal challenge to the landmark Affordable Care Act (ACA).

    Last week, a group of scholars at the Center for American Progress provided a devastating interactive assessment of the judge's opinion, revealing it to be one riddled with historical inaccuracies and teetering on a wobbly understanding of Supreme Court precedent.

    Now a leading constitutional law expert and Yale Law School professor has penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times offering a scathing critique of Vinson's work.

    Professor Akhil Reed Amar says that after reading Vinson's opinion, in which the judge invalidates the entire health care law because he says Congress does not have the constitutional authority to enact the law's individual responsibility provision, he found one thing immediately clear: "My students understand the Constitution better than the judge."

    Amar says the "central issue" in the legal challenges to the health care reform law is "how much power the Constitution gives Congress, and the landmark Supreme Court opinion on this topic is the 1819 classic, McCulloch vs. Maryland." Chief Justice John Marshall (right), Amar writes, said the Constitution provides Congress implied and expressed powers. There have been only two times, the professor continues, since 1937 that the Supreme Court has found that federal action goes beyond Congress's constitutional powers. Specifically those instances were ones that fell outside Congress's constitutional power to regulate commerce among the states.

    But the landmark health care law, Amar says, as do many other constitutional law experts, clearly regulates an industry that crisscrosses the entire nation. The health care law regulates an industry "that obviously spans state lines, involving billions of dollars and millions of patients flowing from state to state."

    He continues that there is nothing "improper in the means" that the Affordable Care Act uses to regulate that industry either. "Laws," he writes, "may properly regulate both actions and inactions, and in any event, Obamacare does not regulate pure inaction. It regulates freeloading. Breathing is an action, and so is going to an emergency room on taxpayers' nickel when you have trouble breathing."

    The opponents looking to tear down the landmark health care reform law should back politicians that support its repeal, Amar says, not "use seats on the lower courts to distort the Constitution, disregard applicable precedents and disrespect a duly elected Congress, which gave Americans in early 2010 exactly what the winning party platform promised in November 2008.

    In his conclusion, Amar notes another "judge named Roger," who gave the country a high court decision that ranks among the Supreme Court's most despicable opinions.

    Amar concludes:

    The case was Dred Scott vs. Sanford, involving a slave who sued for his freedom because he had lived with his master in places where Congress had banned slavery. In an opinion by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the court not only ruled against Scott, saying that even free blacks were not citizens and therefore had no right to sue; it also declared the Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed slavery in Northern territories, unconstitutional.

    History has not been kind to that judge. Roger Vinson, meet Roger Taney.