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Judge clears way for implementation of health-care law in states that are challenging it

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 9:22 PM

A federal judge in Florida who earlier ruled the new health-care law unconstitutional said Thursday that implementation can proceed in the 26 states that mounted the legal challenge while the Obama administration pursues an appeal.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson attached two conditions to the "stay" of his ruling: The administration must file its appeal within seven days and it must request an expedited review from either the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.

"Almost everyone agrees that the Constitutionality of the Act is an issue that will ultimately have to be decided by the Supreme Court of the United States," Vinson wrote. "It is very important to everyone in this country that this case move forward as soon as practically possible."

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the administration would seek fast-track consideration from the 11th Circuit, just as it has with other challenges to the law that have reached circuit courts.

However, a direct appeal to the Supreme Court is highly unlikely. The administration has opposed an effort by Virginia to do so in a similar but separate case. And the states party to the Florida suit have made clear they do not intend to pursue that avenue, either.

The suit is one of 20 pending against the law. Vinson's original Jan. 31 decision was one of two to rule against it. Like the judge in Virginia's suit, Vinson found the law's requirement that virtually all Americans obtain health insurance beginning in 2014 to be unconstitutional.

But Vinson, who like the Virginia judge was a Republican appointee, went a step further, ruling that the insurance mandate was so inextricably linked to the rest of the law that the entire statute should be invalidated.

Three other federal judges, all Democratic appointees, have upheld the law, most recently Judge Gladys Kessler in the District of Columbia.

Technically, the administration had not requested a stay of Vinson's order voiding the law, but rather a clarification of whether he had intended to halt the law's rollout pending appeals.

The confusion stemmed from Vinson's decision not to formally enjoin the law in his original order; instead he suggested that it was "the functional equivalent" of an injunction because it's presumed the federal government automatically complies with such judgements.

This formulation provoked a flurry of conflicting interpretations from lawyers for both sides as well as among legal scholars.

Republican governors and attorneys general of three states party to the suit - Alaska, Florida and Wisconsin - immediately declared that in their states, at least, the law is now "dead."

In the weeks since, they have also returned some state planning funds provided through the law. But they have kept other funds, and they did not take steps to undo provisions of the law that had already taken effect.

By contrast, governors of several other states that are also part of the challenge said they believed that until the appeals process is completed, the statute remains in effect and they must comply with it.

In his opinion Thursday, Vinson rebuked the administration for suggesting that his original order was ambiguous, writing that he clearly meant for it to have the "practical" effect of an injunction that could only be lifted if the government requested a stay.

"It was not expected that [the government] would effectively ignore the order and declaratory judgement for two-and-one-half weeks, continue to implement the Act, and only then file a belated motion to 'clarify,' " the judge wrote.

In an example of scathing language he employed throughout the decision, Vinson added that the administration's claim that its delay was due to the need for careful analysis, "seems contradictory to media reports that the White House declared within hours after entry of my order that 'implementation will proceed apace.' " And, at another point he wrote that one of the administration's arguments "borders on misrepresentation."

Still, since administration lawyers had made clear that if the judge responded that they needed a stay, they intended to request one, Vinson said he would "save time" by treating the government's motion for clarification as one also requesting a stay.

In granting it, the judge pointed to the other cases pending against the law and the conflicting opinions from other courts.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) issued a statement saying that although he now considers the law back in effect, he would still be reluctant to apply for federal implementation funds.

"I continue to strongly prefer to use state resources for state-based health-care solutions to increase access and improve affordability, rather than become more entangled," he said.

aizenmann@washpost.com

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