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Judge hardens health ruling, then delays it

A Florida federal judge who struck down all of the new federal health care law ordered the Obama Administration on Thursday to stop enforcing any part of the 2,700-page statute — but then immediately put his ruling on hold on condition that the Administration move quickly to appeal to a higher court — a federal appeals court or the Supreme Court.  The Administration, however, has already indicated that it prefers to have all of the cases on the new law’s constitutionality proceed first through appeals courts, before going on to the Supreme Court.  Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of Pensacola issued his new 20-page ruling in response to a Justice Department plea that he clarify his earlier decision.

Although saying that he thought his decision on Jan. 31 nullifying the law was clear enough, the judge did acknowledge that some confusion has arisen around the country about whether he intended to block all parts of the law — including provisions already in effect.  He thus summarized what he had ruled earlier, then declared — as he had not done before — that his decision was the binding equivalent of an order totally blocking enforcement.

And then, even though the Administration has not yet sought a formal postponement of his decision, Vinson interpreted the motion to clarify his decision as a motion for a stay.   He then examined the usual factors for and against a stay order, and concluded that, on the whole, one was justified.  But he issued the stay on the specific condition that the Administration file its “anticipated appeal within seven calendar days of this order” and seek “an expedited appellate review, either in the Court of Appeals [for the Eleventh Circuit] or with the Supreme Court under Rule 11 of that Court.”  Thus, enforcement of the law can continue in the meantime.

Noting that he had said early in the Florida lawsuit, nearly 11 months ago, that the people of the nation had an interest in having the constitutionality of the law decided “as soon as practically possible,” he commented that “almost everyone agrees” that that issue will not be finally resolved until the Supreme Court rules on it.  “It is very important to everyone in this country that this case move forward as soon as practically possible,” he repeated.

Even though the Vinson decision against the law came down more than a month ago, the Administration still has not formally filed in court a notice that it would appeal, although Justice Department officials have said they would appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.  Presumably, in response to Vinson’s new order, the government will start that process of appealing within the next week — or else face the prospect that the judge’s stay order would expire, and enforcement of any part of the huge new law would have to cease at the end of that week’s time.  (UPDATE: Shortly after the judge issued the new order, Justice Department spokesperson Tracy Schmaler announced that the Department will promptly file an appeal with the Eleventh Circuit, and will seek to have the appeal put on a fast track.  Other health care appeals are proceeding on an expedited basis in the Fourth and Sixth Circuits.)

Ordinarily, when the government is involved in a federal court case, it has 60 days after the decision comes down to file a formal notice of appeal in the trial court.  After that, an appeal proceeds on a schedule set by the particular federal appeals court for the part of the country where the case was decided — in this case, the Eleventh Circuit based in Atlanta.

The Florida case has taken some strange turns since the judge issued his sweeping ruling against the law five weeks ago.  Among the 26 states who sued in the case, along with a small business companies’ trade group and two individuals, many have continued to apply for and receive federal funds under the new law even after they had persuaded Judge Vinson to nullify it entirely.  And, within a number of those states, disagreements have broken out on whether the Vinson ruling was binding, or not, against all parts of the law.

The judge had struck down, as beyond Congress’s powers, the provision in the law that would require virtually every American to have health insurance by the year 2014.  That is the only part of the law that he explicitly found invalid.  But then he concluded that no part of the law could function without the insurance-purchase mandate, so he issued what is called a “declaratory judgment” that the entire law was unconstitutional.  However, he refused the challengers’ plea that he issue a binding injunction against enforcing it, saying he would rely on the usual assumption that government officials — when told what the law is — would obey it.

Some Administration officials, however, declared afterward that they were moving ahead with the law, especially those provisions that already have taken effect, including some popular clauses that expand access to health care and to health insurance coverage.  And then the Justice Department, telling Judge Vinson that it did not read his opinion as forbidding enforcement of the law, asked the judge to confirm that that was his intention.   Thursday’s ruling, sometimes critical of government maneuverings in the case, was the judge’s response.  He suggested that some of the Department’s argument in favor of its plea for clarification “borders on misrepresentation” by using only selective quotations from court precedents.

While these post-decision developments were playing out, the Administration had done nothing to appeal the ruling formally, and did not seek to have it put on hold while the Department pursued an appeal.  The judge was mildly critical of government lawyers for having waited to make a move, more than two weeks after he had ruled.

Among the reasons leading the judge to concede that some confusion had developed over what he had expected to happen in response to his decision, he cited the situation in the state of Michigan, which is covered by his ruling, but it is also a state in which a different federal judge has upheld the new law and its insurance-purchase mandate.  In addition, Vinson cited a disagreement within Washington State between its governor and its attorney general, with the governor saying she wanted the implementation of the law to go forward and the attorney general saying the judge had blocked its enforcement.

In analyzing the factors controlling whether he should now issue a stay of his decision, Vinson said that the individual insurance-purchase mandate has raised some novel issues, and reasonable people including judges could disagree about its validity, and he suggested that there might also develop a disagreement among the federal appeals courts, and perhaps among the nine Justices of the Supreme Court.  Thus, he conceded, though reluctantly, that the Administration did have some chance of winning its case on appeal.

He also said that there was a balance between harm that would befall those who had challenged the law and the government as it sought to carry out the law that Congress had approved, but he wound up concluding that the balance fell slightly in favor of the government — especially in view of confusion within and among some states.

On the factor of where “the public interest” lies on the question of postponing his rule, Vinson said that almost every argument the Justice Department lawyers had made on the need for clarification actually counted more with him as arguments for an appeal “in the most expeditious and accelerated manner.”

The judge said that “it should not be at all difficult or challenging to ‘fast-track’ this case.”  He said that, in fact, the two sides have already done a great deal of legal writing as the case unfolded, and so they now could go forward in the appeals court simply by changing the caption of the case, “add colored covers, and be done with their briefing.”

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Judge hardens health ruling, then delays it, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 3, 2011, 1:02 PM),