Judge tells Justice Dept.: Clarify remarks on judicial activism amid health-care debate

A federal judge on Tuesday expressed concern over President Obama’s comments on the Supreme Court’s consideration of the health-care law and demanded a letter explaining whether Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. believes federal judges have the authority to strike down federal laws.

Judge Jerry Smith, a Republican appointee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, was part of a three-judge panel hearing arguments in a lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act when he issued his unusual demand, saying the Justice Department must submit the three-page, single-spaced letter by noon Thursday, according to a lawyer who was in the courtroom. The demand was first reported by CBS News.

The lawyer said Smith cited Obama’s statements Monday, when in unusually blunt language, the president said overturning the law would amount to an “unprecedented, extraordinary step” of judicial activism.

The judge “said the president has been saying that unelected branches of government shouldn’t be activist and strike down federal laws,’’ according to the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing either side.

A court order cited the letter but did not give details. The other two judges hearing the case are also Republican appointees.

The White House and the Justice Department declined to comment.

The debate stems from the recent high court review of the law — which requires uninsured Americans to purchase health-care coverage — in which conservative justices appeared open to declaring the heart of the legislation unconstitutional.

Jerry Markon is a political accountability reporter for the Post’s National Desk, focusing on short-term investigative stories about the Affordable Care Act, lobbying and other topics. He also serves as lead Web writer for major breaking national news.
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