11th Circuit Finds Affordable Care Act’s Individual Mandate Unconstitutional

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Decision splits circuits, sparking responses from presidential candidates.

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Last week, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal appeals court to rule that the individual mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act violated the U.S. Constitution.  Attorneys general and governors of 26 states, small business owners, and two individuals brought the challenge that resulted in the court’s 2-1 decision.

The individual mandate requires all U.S. residents to purchase health insurance by 2014 or pay a fine.  Judges in lower federal courts have divided over the constitutionality, under the Commerce Clause, of this statutory requirement.  In June, 2011, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the individual mandate as constitutional.

The 11th  Circuit decided that Congress’ requirement that individuals enter into insurance contracts was “a wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority” that Congress could use as a basis to regulate people “at every point of their life.”

The dissenting opinion accused the majority of acting as unelected “superlegislature” and ignoring Congress’ traditionally “wide regulatory latitude” under the Commerce Clause.  The dissent argued that the regulated conduct – the  “consumption of health care services by the uninsured” – clearly impacts interstate commerce.

According to Stephanie Cutter, an advisor to the President,  the Obama Administration is confident the 11th Circuit’s decision will not stand because the mandate clearly regulates interstate commerce: taxpayers and those with insurance are often forced to pay for uninsured people’s health care costs.

Republican candidates for President strongly supported the recent decision. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) called the decision “welcome relief’ and called on the Obama administration to cease enforcing the act’s other provisions because, without mandated insurance payments, they were no longer financially sustainable.   Herman Cain called the decision a “constitutionally-sound judgment” backed by “overwhelming public sentiment.”

Other Republicans also supported the decision, such as House Speaker John Boehner, who said that Americans should “not be penalized for failing to purchase a plan devised by Washington.” Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who filed an amicus brief in the 11th Circuit case, applauded the ruling but pledged to continue fighting other provisions of “this terribly flawed health care law.”

Meanwhile, President Obama said his Republican opponents suffered from “amnesia” because they were forgetting Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s implementation of “the exact same thing in Massachusetts.”

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to rule on an appeal it heard on May 10, 2011 from a district court ruling that the mandate was unconstitutional. Other challenges at the federal appeals level, in the 9th and 3rd circuits, were recently dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

Legal analysts have observed that the splintered judicial decisions will render the law hard to implement.  The Supreme Court may feel compelled to take an appeal from the 11th or 6th Circuit cases in its next term.