Obamacare Legislation Upheld By 6th Circuit Court of Appeals

Lost in the Casie Anthony trial uproar the past couple of weeks, a major decision was handed down regarding President Obama's Health Care Legislation and its constitutionality by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Obama’s health care law when they affirmed that Congress could require Americans to have minimum insurance coverage. This was the first of three anticipated federal Court of Appeals decisions on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The Thomas More Law Center, a public interest law firm, brought the case on the grounds that Congress had overstepped its powers by enacting the law, which they argued was too broad and therefore unconstitutional.  Their position was that requiring citizens to buy a minimum amount of insurance or to face penalties could subject them to financial hardship. The government countered with the argument that the measure was necessary to achieve the overall goal of reducing health care costs and to make reforms such as protecting people with preexisting conditions. The government's attorneys argued that requiring coverage would stop the costs of changes from being shifted to the household and providers.

In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel rejected the challenge to the legislation by the Law Center. The ruling was particularly notable because Republican appointed Judge Jeffery Sutton, who was nominated by George W. Bush, was one of the Judges to uphold the mandate. Judge Boyce Martin, a Carter appointee, wrote the main decision, with Sutton concurring in part, and Judge James Graham dissenting in part.

In the opinion, Judge Martin makes it clear that the decision of the court turned on whether the Constitution grants Congress the power to enact the legislation.  He stated that the minimum coverage provision, like all congressional enactments, “is entitled to a “presumption of constitutionality” and will be invalidated only upon a “plain showing that Congress has exceeded its constitutional bounds. U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598,697 (2000).”  Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, No. 10-2388 (Ohio Ct. App. 2011)  He  further explained that while states have the general police power to enact minimum coverage provisions similar to the one in the Affordable Health Care Act, the federal government does not share this power and can only enact such a law if it is authorized to do so by one of its enumerated powers. Id.  Thus, the determination necessary then turns to whether Congress properly relied on its authority under the Commerce Clause to enact the minimum coverage provision. Id. “The Court has explained that Congress’s Commerce Clause power encompasses three broad spheres: (1) “the use of the channels of interstate commerce”; (2) “the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce”; and (3) “those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce, . . . i.e., those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.”  United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 558 (1995).” Id. In this instance the United States only contended that the minimum coverage provision fell within the third category. This meant that the Court needed only to consider whether the provision falls within Congress’s power to regulate activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. Martin wrote that Congress had a rational basis for concluding that the practice of self-insuring for the cost of health care substantially affects interstate commerce because “the minimum coverage provision is essential to the Affordable Care Act’s “larger reforms to the national markets in care delivery and health insurance.” Id.

In his concurrence, Judge Sutton rejected the argument made by Thomas More that Congress was improperly regulating “inactivity.” He gives greater insight into the argument that is being made by Thomas More, which is that Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce extends only to individuals already in the stream of the relevant commercial market, but not to force individuals to enter into a market. Id. Sutton rejected this contention noting that they are not being forced into the market because uninsured people pay for medical coverage by “self-insuring,” by saving money or by relying on someone else to eventually cover the costs. Id. Sutton notes,  “No one is inactive when deciding how to pay for health care, as self-insurance and private insurance are two forms of action for addressing the same risk. Each requires affirmative choices; one is no less active than the other, and both affect commerce.” Id.

In his dissent, Judge James Graham says if the exercise of power is allowed and the mandate upheld “it is difficult to see what the limits on Congress’s Commerce Clause authority would be.” Id. He finds this mandate to be a novel exercise of the Commerce Clause power as no prior exercise of that power has required individuals to purchase a good or service. Id. Judge Graham says that, while there is certainly an interstate market for health insurance, the plaintiffs in this case have not entered into the market, and in no other instance has Congress before attempted to force a non-participant into a market. Id. He holds that it is important to uphold the framework of meaningful limitations on congressional power under the Commerce Clause and that this case is an opportunity to prove so. Id.

Robert Muise, who argued the case for the Thomas More Law Center, said that the organization would file petition for review as quickly as possible and ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The United States Court of Appeals in Atlanta, GA heard arguments on the same issue in the Federal government’s bid to reverse a Pensacola, Florida federal judge’s decision that the mandate is unconstitutional just 7 days after this case was heard.  Another appeals court in Richmond,Virginia heard arguments in early May regarding the issue. It is likely that the high court will wait for these decisions before reviewing them during their next term, which begins in October.

We will see what happens in regards to the petition for review, but it seems this needs to garner a little more attention in the media than it has been attracting so we decided to do our part to raise awareness.  Feel free to post your comments and/or thoughts.

Adam W. Howell, Esquire