A federal judge in Michigan this afternoon denied the conservative Thomas More Law Center's motion to freeze implementation of the health care overhaul law on the grounds that the insurance mandate in the law is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Court Judge George Steeh, appointed by former President Bill Clinton, found that the mandate is not unconstitutional and cited Supreme Court rulings rejecting claims that individuals who choose not to engage in a market are beyond the reach of the "commerce clause," a congressional power cited by Democrats to justify the mandate.
The Obama administration welcomed the ruling, which is the first to address the direct question of the constitutionality of the insurance coverage mandate. The Michigan case is one of several in the nation's court system challenging the constitutionality of the insurance mandate, including cases in Virginia and Florida. A decision on the Health and Human Services Department's motion to dismiss the Florida case, which involves 19 other states, is expected Oct. 14. Oral arguments on the merits of the Virginia case begin Oct. 18.
"This ruling marks the first time a court has considered the merits of any challenge to this law and we welcome the court's decision upholding the health care reform statute as constitutional," said Justice Department official Tracy Schmaler.
"The court found that the minimum coverage provision of the statute was a reasonable means for Congress to take in reforming our health care system. The department will continue to vigorously defend this law in ongoing litigation."
Georgetown University Law Professor Randy Barnett, an early critic of the law's constitutionality, said Steeh did not follow existing Supreme Court doctrine on the commerce clause, which historically ruled that the clause relates to economic activity. Steeh's decision says the federal government's characterization of the commerce clause reaching economic decisions is "more accurate" than the plantiff's description of economic activity.
"The Supreme Court always talked about economic activity, but Steeh says it's really about economic decisions. He accepted the government's new doctrine," said Barnett. "He shouldn't do that as a district court judge. That is the Supreme Court's job."
Ilya Shapiro, a lawyer for the Cato institute who has filed amicus briefs on behalf of plaintiffs in the Virginia case, also objected to the economic "decisions" language in the ruling.
"Finding the individual mandate constitutional would be the first interpretation of the commerce clause to permit the regulation of inactivity -- requiring an individual to engage in economic activity," said Shapiro. "Under Judge Steeh's 'economic decisions' theory, Congress could tell people what to study in school or what job to take."
Congressional republicans also opposed the decision.
"If the commerce clause can be used to implement an individual mandate and be considered constitutional, then there is no limit to what the federal government can force Americans to do or purchase," said House Energy and Commerce member Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas.
"If allowed, this would be the most far-reaching infringement on our right as Americans to liberty in the history of our country, and gives a green light to any and all future Washington-knows-best policies the Democrats may try to ram down our throats."