In June, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati upheld the health-care law in a separate case. A third challenge is pending in the 4th Circuit in Richmond, with a decision expected soon.
The Supreme Court will almost certainly decide the constitutionality of the act. Friday’s decision seemed to seal the deal, because the most important factor in whether the court accepts a case is whether lower courts are split on a constitutional question. But when the court could hear the case was not clear.
Opponents of the health-care law, which has become a political lightning rod since its passage in March 2010, are pushing for swift Supreme Court review. The administration said Friday it is considering its legal options. One of those would be to appeal Friday’s decision to the full 11th Circuit Court. That could delay any Supreme Court ruling until after the 2012 election.
Administration officials downplayed the importance of Friday’s decision, noting that other judges have supported the law.
“Today’s ruling is one of many decisions on the [health-care law] that we will see in the weeks and months ahead,” Stephanie Cutter, a senior White House official, said in a statement. “In the end, we are confident the act will ultimately be upheld.”
In its ruling, the 11th Circuit panel teed up many of the arguments likely to dominate a Supreme Court review.
The two judges in the majority called the law’s insurance requirement a “wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority.” And they rejected the government’s contention that unique features of the health-care market justified the mandate.
The government had argued that, since nearly everyone will need health care at some point and since hospitals are legally bound to treat those who cannot pay, a person’s decision about whether to buy insurance amounts to a decision about how they will pay for that care. Those with insurance pay through premiums, and those without it either pay out of pocket or by passing on the cost to hospitals, paying customers and government agencies — all actions on which Congress can legislate through its constitutional authority to regulate commerce.
The judges said that logic could apply to any number of markets, ranging from nursing home care to burials. “We are unable to conceive of anyproduct whose purchase Congress could not mandate under this line of argument,” wrote Chief Judge Joel Dubina and Circuit Judge Frank Hull.