Judge Roger Vinson’s decision on Monday that ObamaCare is unconstitutional in its entirety has sparked a lively debate at Cato and in the country as well about precisely what the practical effect of the decision is, pending a final ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which may be a year or more in the offing.
Obviously, the Obama administration and the states have already begun implementing parts of the law. Yet the Washington Post reports this morning that Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, one of the parties to the suit, “issued a stern statement” following the decision:
“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.
Other attorneys general and governors have taken a variety of positions about the decision’s effect. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is proceeding with its implementation plans, and has indicated that it will seek a stay of Judge Vinson’s decision.
The problem that my colleague Bob Levy and I see with seeking a stay, however, is that Judge Vinson's ruling declared ObamaCare unconstitutional; but the judge did not issue a formal injunction. Our colleagues Michael Cannon and Ilya Shapiro have endorsed one plausible reading of that ruling — i.e., absent a court-issued stay, ObamaCare cannot be further implemented. That interpretation may be correct, but the administration and others disagree, and the issues are murky.
What would the remedy be if the federal Department of Health and Human Services were to continue implementing ObamaCare? If an injunction had been issued, HHS officials might be found in contempt of court. But without an injunction, there is no obvious remedy.
Moreover, a single district court in a single state might not be empowered to foreclose nationwide implementation of a federal statute. After all, two other district courts have upheld ObamaCare's constitutionality. Suppose each of the 26 states in the Florida case had filed separate suits. Suppose further that 25 of the 26 suits had been dismissed, but one outlier court had held that ObamaCare was unconstitutional. Would that court's order effectively require HHS to abandon the legislation? Surely, proponents of ObamaCare would have a valid argument that start-and-stop implementation might be chaotic.
Because the issues are complex and unclear, the better outcome would be for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to clarify the effect of Judge Vinson's ruling. And given the manifold implementation uncertainties surrounding the serious constitutional questions, affecting so many people and institutions, private and public, Judge Vinson’s decision should be put on a fast track to the Supreme Court.
Addendum: Further on the practical effect of Judge Vinson's declaring ObamaCare unconstitutional -- whatever it may be -- it is reasonable to argue that the 26 plaintiff states in the Florida case need not, for now, take any action mandated by the statute. Any attempt by the federal government to force compliance by one of the recalcitrant states would likely result in further litigation that might have the salutary effect, at least, of clarifying this confusing situation.