The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld the health reform law’s controversial requirement that nearly all Americans buy insurance, marking a significant win for President Barack Obama in the legal battles over his signature legislation.
The ruling by a three-judge panel — 2-1 in favor of the mandate — is the first from an appeals court on the constitutionality of the law.
The panel included two Republican nominees, who ended up on opposite ends of the opinion. Jeffrey S. Sutton, a George W. Bush nominee and a former clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia, is the first Republican-nominated judge to rule in favor of upholding the mandate.
“We find that the minimum coverage provision is a valid exercise of legislative power by Congress under the Commerce Clause,” Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr., who was nominated by Jimmy Carter, wrote for the majority.
The 6th Circuit upheld a lower court ruling in a suit brought by the conservative Thomas More Law Center, which argued on behalf of itself and two individuals that Congress has no legal right to impose the mandate.
The most likely next step for the group is to petition the Supreme Court to overturn the 6th Circuit’s decision. It could also ask the entire 6th Circuit to hear the case, but that’s not expected.
The court ruled that the mandate regulates economic activity with a substantial effect on interstate commerce, and thus is legal. The court also agreed with the federal government that Congress had reason to think that allowing people to go uninsured would allow for “free riders” to take advantage of the system — and other taxpayers.
The speed in which the 6th Circuit issued its ruling — 29 days after oral arguments — could ensure that the Supreme Court is positioned to take up one of the health reform cases this fall. If that happens, the high court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the law could come next summer, during the height of the presidential campaign.
“The one thing I think we can be assured of is if the United States Supreme Court accepts this case, I can almost certainly assume it will announce its opinion in the last week of June 2012,” said Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general under President Bill Clinton and a strong proponent of the constitutionality of the law.
The 6th Circuit is one of three appeals panels that heard oral arguments in suits over the mandate this spring, but it’s the first to issue a ruling. This summer, rulings are expected from the 4th Circuit — which heard two cases brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia and Liberty University in May — and the 11th Circuit, which heard the high-profile case brought by 26 governors and attorneys general.
Opponents of the law now need one of the other circuits to strike down the law, which would result in split circuit decisions and strengthen the argument that the Supreme Court should take up the issue.
The 4th Circuit panel strongly suggested through its questions that it would uphold the mandate. The 11th Circuit offered clues pointing in both directions.
About 30 suits have been filed challenging the health law, most making similar arguments against the mandate. All of the judges who ruled on the merits of the case at the district court level did so along the partisan lines of the president who nominated him or her, making Wednesday’s ruling significant.
The panel was made up of Martin, Sutton and James L. Graham, a Ronald Reagan nominee.
“Sutton’s opinion will be especially influential because he’s one of the most highly regarded appellate judges in the country,” said Dellinger.
Supporters of the law hope that Sutton’s concurring opinion will resonate with conservative members of the Supreme Court.
In a partial dissent, Graham questioned what would limit Congress’s power if the mandate is upheld. It’s a frequent argument among the law’s opponents: If Congress can require people to buy insurance, can it also require people to guy GM cars or broccoli?
“It is difficult to see what the limits on Congress’s Commerce Clause authority would be,” Graham wrote.
Sutton, however, rejected that argument.
“In most respects, a mandate to purchase health insurance does not parallel these other settings or markets. Regulating how citizens pay for what they already receive (health care), never quite know when they will need, and in the case of severe illnesses or emergencies generally will not be able to afford, has few (if any) parallels in modern life,” Sutton wrote in a concurring opinion.
“Not every intrusive law is an unconstitutionally intrusive law,” he wrote.
Advocates of the health law immediately praised the ruling, arguing that other circuit courts will follow suit.
“We will continue to vigorously defend the health care reform statute in any litigation challenging it,” DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said. “Throughout history, there have been similar challenges to other landmark legislation such as the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and all of those challenges failed. We believe these challenges to health reform will also fail.”
The court also agreed that health care is a unique market because most providers are required to treat people — a critical piece of the government’s argument.
“Although there is no firm, constitutional bar that prohibits Congress from placing regulations on what could be described as inactivity, even if there were it would not impact this case due to the unique aspects of health care that make all individuals active in this market,” Martin wrote.
POLITICO and the New Hampshire Union Leader are sharing content for the 2012 presidential campaign.