CINCINNATI – In the first ruling by a federal appeals court on President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, a panel in Cincinnati affirmed Wednesday that Congress can require Americans to have minimum insurance coverage.
A Republican-appointed judge joined with a Democratic appointee for the 2-1 majority in a victory for Obama’s signature domestic initiative. The White House and Justice Department hailed the ruling; opponents of the law said challenges will continue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A conservative law center had challenged the measure, arguing on behalf of plaintiffs who said being required to buy insurance or face penalties could subject them to financial hardship. They warned that the law was too broad and could lead to more federal mandates.
The Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., argued before the panel that the law was unconstitutional and that Congress overstepped its powers.
The government countered that the measure was needed for the overall goal of reducing health care costs and of reforms such as protecting people with pre-existing conditions. It said the coverage mandate would help keep the costs of changes from being shifted to households and providers.
The three-judge 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel delivered a lengthy opinion with disagreement on some issues.
“Congress had a rational basis for concluding that the minimum coverage provision is essential to the Affordable Care Act’s larger reforms to the national markets in health care delivery and health insurance,” Judge Boyce F. Martin, appointed by former President Jimmy Carter, wrote for the majority.
A George W. Bush appointee concurred; a Ronald Reagan appointee who is a U.S. district judge in Columbus sitting on the panel disagreed. Judges are selected for panels through random draw.
“If the exercise of power is allowed and the mandate upheld, it is difficult to see what the limits on Congress’ Commerce Clause authority would be,” warned dissenting Judge James Graham of Columbus. “What aspect of human activity would escape federal power?”
Judge Jeffrey Sutton, the Bush appointee, delivered the decisive vote, although his opinion cautiously raised questions and noted the unusual nature of a law directed at someone who chooses inaction, referring to those “who prize that most American of freedoms: to be left alone.”
But the government argued that telling someone to buy health insurance isn’t the same as ordering them to buy a car or a vegetable.
“The novelty of the individual mandate may indeed suggest it is a bridge too far, but it also may offer one more example of a policy necessity giving birth to an inventive (and constitutional) congressional solution,” Sutton wrote.
An attorney for Thomas More said the center expects to appeal. It could ask for the full circuit court to review the case or go on to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Among those supporting the center in court documents in the case – titled Thomas More Law Center, et al, vs. Barack Hussein Obama, et al – were Republican presidential candidates Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul and several members of Congress.