Uncertainty over the practical effect of Judge Roger Vinson’s decision on Monday that ObamaCare is unconstitutional in its entirety continues to swirl all across the country. The day after the decision came down, as I noted here on Wednesday, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, one of the parties to the suit, issued a statement saying: “This means that, for Wisconsin, the federal health care law is dead,” and his state “was relieved of any obligations or duties” to carry out the statute. And just today Alaska’s Governor Sean Parnell asked his attorney general to advise him on whether implementing and enforcing the federal healthcare overhaul would put Parnell in violation of his oath of office. He told reporters that he took an oath to support and defend the constitutions of the United States and Alaska, adding that he has a duty to uphold the law. Other governors and state AGs, to say nothing of insurance companies, employers, and ordinary citizens, are all in the same boat, and will be until the Supreme Court finally decides the matter, which may be a year or more in the offing.
Here’s the legal issue in a nutshell. Two district courts have upheld the statute. Prior to Monday’s ruling, a district court in Virginia found a core element in ObamaCare, the individual mandate, to be unconstitutional. And on Monday Judge Vinson, in the Northern District of Florida, issued a “declaratory judgment,” declaring ObamaCare unconstitutional in its entirety. In his opinion he held that the judgment was “the practical equivalent of specific relief such as an injunction,” and he added that “it must be presumed that federal officers will adhere to the law as declared by the court.” The Obama administration has thus far shown no inclination to “adhere to the law as declared by the court.” Nor has the administration thus far sought to stay any practical effects of the court’s ruling.
Just what those effects may be is what is unclear, leading to the confusion. It would seem, at a minimum, that the parties to the suit are bound by the judgment. If so, at the least, the government has no authority to implement the statute within the jurisdiction of the Northern District of Florida. But beyond that jurisdiction, does the government have authority to do so with respect to those parties? Suppose one of the winning plaintiffs sought to enjoin the government in a jurisdiction that had upheld the statute. On which of the conflicting decisions would the court decide to grant or deny the motion? Suppose the government sought a writ of mandamus from a court in such a jurisdiction, ordering one of the plaintiffs to comply with the statute. Again, on which of the conflicting decisions would the court decide to grant or deny the motion?
The administration could seek to stay the effects of the two decisions that went against it, of course, which isn’t to say a court would necessarily issue such a stay. After all, if it turns out that those rulings are correct, a huge amount of trouble and expense, especially in financially strapped states, will have been for nothing – and vast insurance and medical markets will have been uprooted.
Not surprisingly, therefore, there is action in the political branches to try more quickly to resolve this matter. Yesterday, for example, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli asked the Supreme Court to bypass the normal appeals process and review the decision from that state directly. The Obama Justice Department said it will oppose the motion. Then just today Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and 15 of her Republican colleagues announced that they’re working “to place a moratorium on any further implementation of the statute until there has been final judicial resolution in the pending lawsuits challenging the law.” Of particular note: “The bill delays provisions and new regulations of the Obama health care law not in effect on the date of enactment until final judicial resolution of the lawsuits. The bill does not suspend features of the law already in effect on the date of enactment.” And finally, on the other side of the aisle, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) has just introduced a “Sense of the Congress” resolution urging the Supreme Court to put the matter on a fast track to resolution. Stay tuned, there’s much at stake.