In a stinging rebuke to the Obama administration, a federal judge Monday invalidated a key provision of the recently passed health care law, saying that it "exceeds the constitutional boundaries of congressional power."
The ruling was the first from a federal judge invalidating a provision the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which Congress passed in 2010.
U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson said in a 42-page opinion that the so-called individual mandate provision, which requires all Americans to buy some form of health insurance, would "invite unbridled exercise of the federal police powers."
The Obama administration had argued that the individual mandate was essential to keep down nationwide health care costs, and that Congress had acted under its authority to regulate interstate commerce. But the judge said an individual's decision to purchase — or to decline to purchase — health care from a private provider is beyond the "historical reach" the Constitution grants Congress to regulate interstate commerce.
"At its core," the judge ruled, "this dispute is not simply about regulating the business of insurance, or crafting a scheme of universal health insurance coverage, its about an individual's right to choose to participate."
The judge, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, did not strike down the entire law. The provision requiring people to have health insurance was not supposed to take effect until 2014 -- and in the meantime other federal judges are sure to rule on the issue.
The Justice Department released a statement: "We are disappointed in today's ruling but continue to believe -- as other federal courts in Virginia and Michigan have found -- that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional," said spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. "There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing this law and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail."
"This is the first case in which a judge will actually enter a decision on the question of the constitutionality of the individual mandate at the behest of a state," said Tim Jost of Washington and Lee University Law School before the judge's ruling today. "Virginia has adopted a statute that attempts to nullify the federal law. It cannot do that if the federal law is found to be constitutional."
The Obama administration argued in court briefs that in 2009 alone, 45 million people — an estimated 15 percent of the population — went without health insurance.
"The uninsured shift $43 billion in the cost of their care annually to other market participants," argued lawyers for Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, "including providers, patients (in the form of higher costs), insurers, and the insured population (in the form of higher premiums)."
The government lawyers argued, "Congress has the authority under commerce power to take measures to ensure the success of its larger reforms of the interstate market."