Appeals Court Rules Portion of Obama Health Care Bill Unconstitutional

Divided, three-judge panel called the bill 'breathtaking in its expansive scope'

ByABC News
August 12, 2011, 4:21 PM

August 12, 2011 -- A federal appeals court in Atlanta on Friday struck down a key provision of the Obama administration's health care reform law, ruling that Congress exceeded its authority in mandating that most Americans buy health insurance by 2014 or face a penalty.

A divided, three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the individual mandate was "breathtaking in its expansive scope" and therefore unconstitutional. The "individual mandate," they wrote, "exceeds Congress's enumerated commerce power."

The opinion was written jointly by Chief Judge Joel F. Dubina, a George H.W. Bush appointee, and Judge Frank M. Hull, appointed to the bench by Bill Clinton. The ruling marks the first time a judge appointed by a Democratic president struck down the key provision of the law.

"This economic mandate represents a wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority: the ability to compel Americans to purchase an expensive health insurance product they have elected not to buy, and to make them re-purchase that insurance product every month for their entire lives," Judges Hull and Dubina wrote. They said, "We have not found any generally applicable, judicially enforceable limiting principle that would permit us to uphold the mandate without obliterating the boundaries inherent in the system of enumerated congressional powers."

While striking down the mandate, the Court ruled that it was severable from the rest of the law.

"The Act's other provisions remain legally operative after the mandate's excision," the majority wrote.

Because a separate Appeals Court upheld the provision in June, today's ruling increases the likelihood that the Supreme Court might eventually step in and hear the issue to resolve the circuit split. Currently the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia is considering a similar challenge.

Friday's challenge was brought by 26 states, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and two individual plaintiffs.

At oral arguments Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal had argued for the administration that health care is a unique market and a "universal fact of our existence" and that Congress was well within its authority to pass a sweeping health care law. But Paul Clement, arguing for the States, said the case turns on "whether or not the federal government can compel an individual to engage in commerce."