“We find that the minimum coverage provision is a valid exercise of legislative power by Congress under the Commerce Clause,” Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr., a Democratic appointee, wrote for the majority. He was joined by Republican appointee Jeffrey Sutton.
The 2 to 1 ruling was hailed by the Justice Department and administration allies, who called it an important bipartisan test of the law’s ability to withstand numerous legal challenges. Opponents of the health-care act disputed the ruling’s significance, calling it one incremental step in a legal struggle widely expected to wind up at the Supreme Court.
“It’s an unfortunate decision,” said David Rivkin, a lawyer representing 26 states in a Florida-based lawsuit that also challenges the law. “By the time this gets to the Supreme Court, it’s not going to matter which decision was first or second,” added Rivkin, who predicted that the law will be overturned.
The differing interpretations reflected the deep divisions over a measure that has provoked vehement opposition and equally strong support among the public and politicians alike. More than 30 lawsuits have been filed since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was pushed through Congress by Democrats in March 2010, resulting in several rulings by lower-court judges that, until now, have cleaved along partisan lines.
As a result, the ultimate fate of the statute, which aims to bring about the broadest changes to the nation’s health-care system in several decades, may not be known for a year or more. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the 6th Circuit case said they will appeal directly to the Supreme Court but acknowledged that the justices probably will not take the case right away.
Most contested provision
The health-care law seeks to extend medical coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans and make major changes in public and private health insurance. By far the most contested provision is the individual mandate, which requires most Americans to purchase at least a minimum level of health insurance starting in 2014 and imposes a tax penalty if they don’t.
Like other legal challenges, the lawsuit filed by the Thomas More Law Center — a Christian-oriented law firm in Michigan — says Congress overstepped its constitutional authority to regulate commerce.
A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit disagreed. The mandate is constitutional, Martin wrote, because “Congress had a rational basis to believe” that the provision would affect interstate commerce and that it was “essential” to the law’s broader goals of reforming the health-care market.