In a victory for the Obama administration, a federal appeals court has upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The decision marks the first time an appellate court has weighed in on the issue and also the first time a judge, appointed by a Republican president, has voted to uphold the law.
The case stems from a challenge from the Thomas More Center, a public interest law firm, and four Michigan residents who claimed that the individual mandate -- the portion of the law that requires individuals to buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a tax penalty-- is unconstitutional.
In his opinion Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr. of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said the law is constitutional under the Commerce Clause because the provision "regulates economic activity" with a "substantial" effect on interstate commerce.
"In addition, " he wrote, "Congress had a rational basis to believe that the provision was essential to its larger economic scheme reforming the interstate markets in heath care and health insurance."
Martin, who was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter, was joined in the decision by Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush. Before today every other judge who had voted to uphold the law was nominated by a Democratic president and those who voted against it were nominated by a Republican president.
"Judge Sutton's thoughtful opinion upholds Congress's power to enact the minimum coverage provision of the ACA," said Elizabeth B. Wydra, Chief Counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who supports the law. "His opinion is a timely reminder that the legal fight over the constitutionality of the Act is a legal dispute not a partisan battle. Judges across the political spectrum have the duty to uphold the Constitution's text and history and respect Supreme Court precedent, which is exactly what the Sixth Circuit did today. "
This will not be the only federal appeals court ruling on the law. A federal appeals court in Virginia appeared more skeptical of the law when it heard arguments in May. Read more about that case HERE.
The question raised by these cases about the Affordable Care Act - whether the government has the authority to make citizens buy health insurance or pay a fine - is almost assured a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Department of Justice praised today's ruling.
"We welcome the Sixth Circuit's ruling today dismissing this challenge to the Affordable Care Act and its finding that Congress acted within its authority in passing this landmark health care reform law," spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said in a statement. "We will continue to vigorously defend the health care reform statute in any litigation challenging it."
Martin rejected the argument made by most challengers of the law that the choice not to buy health insurance is an "inactivity," which Congress does not have the authority to regulate.
He said, "The text of the Commerce Clause does not acknowledge a constitutional distinction between activity and inactivity, and neither does the Supreme Court."
"As long as Congress does not exceed the established limits of its Commerce Power, there is no constitutional impediment to enacting legislation that could be characterized as regulating inactivity," Martin wrote.
Judge James L. Graham, the third member of the three judge panel, disagreed with his colleagues on the issue of whether the law was valid under the Commerce Clause.
"If the exercise of power is allowed and the mandate is upheld," he wrote, "it is difficult to see what the limits on Congress' Commerce Clause authority would be."
He wrote, "To approve the exercise of power would arm Congress with the authority to force individuals to do whatever it sees fit (within boundaries of the First Amendment and Due Process Clause) as long as the regulation concerns an activity or decision that, when aggregated, can be said to have some loose, but-for type of economic connection which all human activity does. "