PENSACOLA, Florida (AP) — A federal judge ruled Monday that President Barack Obama's sweeping health care overhaul is unconstitutional, the latest in a series of contradictory rulings that will likely need to be resolved by the Supreme Court.
Faced with a major legal setback, the White House called the ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson — in a challenge to the law by 26 of the nation's 50 states — "a plain case of judicial overreaching." That echoed language the judge had used to describe the law as an example of Congress overstepping its authority.
The Florida judge's ruling produced an even split in federal court decisions so far on the health care law, mirroring enduring divisions among the public. Two judges had previously upheld the law, both Democratic appointees. A Republican appointee in Virginia had ruled against it.
The Justice Department quickly announced it would appeal, and administration officials declared that for now the federal government and the states would proceed without interruption to carry out the law. It seemed evident that only the U.S. Supreme Court could deliver a final verdict on Obama's historic expansion of health insurance coverage.
Attorneys for the Obama administration had argued that the states did not have standing to challenge the law and that the case should be dismissed.
Health care reform was Obama's signature domestic issue during the first two years of his presidency, and was the most successful push for universal health care after a century of attempts.
Vinson ruled against the overhaul on grounds that Congress exceeded its authority by requiring nearly all Americans to carry health insurance, an idea dating back to Republican proposals from the 1990s but now almost universally rejected by conservatives.
His ruling followed the same general reasoning as one last year from the federal judge in Virginia. But where the first judge's ruling would strike down the insurance requirement and leave the rest of the law in place, Vinson took it much farther, invalidating provisions that range from Medicare discounts for seniors with high prescription costs to a change that allows adult children up to age 26 to remain on their parents' coverage.
The central issue remains the constitutionality of the law's core requirement that Americans carry health insurance except in cases of financial hardship. Starting in 2014, those who cannot show they are covered by an employer, government program or their own policy will face fines from the IRS.
Opponents say a federal requirement that individuals obtain a specific service — a costly one in the case of health insurance — is unprecedented and oversteps the authority the Constitution gives Congress to regulate interstate commerce.
Obama administration attorneys had argued that the health care system was part of the interstate commerce system. They said the government can levy a tax penalty on Americans who decide not to purchase health insurance because all Americans are consumers of medical care.
But attorneys for the states said the administration was essentially coercing the states into participating in the overhaul by holding billions of federal Medicaid health care dollars hostage. The states also said the federal government is violating the Constitution by forcing a mandate on the states without providing money to pay for it.
Defenders of the law say health insurance can't work if people are allowed to opt out until they need medical attention. Premiums collected from people who are healthy pay the cost of care for those who get sick. So the decisions of people who choose not to get coverage has consequences for other people who do buy coverage.
Opponents of the health overhaul praised the decision within minutes of its release Monday afternoon. Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said it shows Senate Democrats should follow a House vote to repeal the law.
"Today's decision affirms the view, held by most of the states and a majority of the American people, that the federal government should not be in the business of forcing you to buy health insurance and punishing you if you don't," he said in a statement.
Democrats just as quickly slammed the decision.
"This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt by those who want to raise taxes on small businesses, increase prescription prices for seniors and allow insurance companies to once again deny sick children medical care," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a prepared statement.
Florida's former Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum filed the lawsuit just minutes after President Barack Obama signed the 10-year, $938 billion health care bill into law in March. He chose a court in Pensacola, one of Florida's most conservative cities. The nation's most influential small business lobby, the National Federation of Independent Business, also joined.
Officials in the states that sued lauded Vinson's decision. Almost all of them have Republican governors, attorneys general or both.
Associated Press Writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.
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