Pennsylvania Federal Judge Finds the Individual Mandate Unconstitutional and Strikes Down Closely Related Provisions

by J. Peter Rich and Webb Millsaps

On September 13, 2011, a federal district court judge in Pennsylvania ruled that the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is unconstitutional and that certain provisions closely linked to the individual mandate must also be struck down.

Judge Christopher C. Connor’s decision differed from all of the prior judicial rulings on the question of severability, finding that certain provisions of the ACA which are closely tied to the individual mandate should fail as well, including provisions on guaranteed issuance of health insurance coverage irrespective of pre-existing conditions.  However, Judge Connor ruled that the bulk of the ACA should remain intact, notwithstanding the unconstitutionality of the individual mandate. In this regard, Judge Connor’s decision took a middle path between the previous two district court decisions that had found the individual mandate unconstitutional.  Judge Hudson in Virginia had struck down the individual mandate, but had ruled that all other provisions of the ACA could stand intact.  Judge Vinson in Florida had struck down the individual mandate and had ruled that the entirety of the ACA must fail.

Six federal district courts have now ruled on the constitutionality of the individual mandate: three finding it constitutional and three finding it unconstitutional (two of those decisions, one on each side of the scorecard, were vacated last week by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals).  Aside from those six courts, other federal district courts have also ruled in cases involving challenges to the ACA, but those rulings have been on legal grounds not related to the constitutional questions, such as whether the challengers have standing.

Three federal circuit courts of appeals have now considered lower court decisions on the individual mandate.  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, reviewing Judge Vinson’s opinion, found the individual mandate to be unconstitutional, but overturned Judge Vinson on the severability issue, ruling that the remainder of the ACA should not be struck down.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld a lower court decision that found the individual mandate to be constitutional.  Last week, on September 8, 2011, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond vacated two federal district court decisions, finding that the judges did not have standing to reach their decisions (for legal reasons related to standing of the challengers and ripeness of the injuries).  Separately, briefs have been filed in another case which is before the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

There are approximately 30 cases involving challenges to the ACA that are in various stages of litigation.  Due to the circuit split between the Eleventh Circuit and Sixth Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately resolve the issues of the individual mandate and its severability from other provisions of the ACA.