Obama Administration Asks Supreme Court to Take Up Health Reform Case

by J. Peter Rich and Webb Millsaps

The Obama Administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of the individual mandate, a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that the Administration once referred to as the “linchpin” of the sweeping 2010 health reform law.   As we wrote previously, there are numerous challenges to the ACA that are in various stages of litigation, but the most significant case, Florida et al. v. United States Department of Health and Human Services et al. (Florida v. HHS), is the one that the Administration has petitioned the Supreme Court to review.

The challengers in Florida v. HHS, including 26 states, the National Federation of Independent Business and two individual citizens, originally were victorious in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Court of Florida.  That decision by Judge Roger Vinson found that the individual mandate was unconstitutional and also found that the whole of the ACA must fail as a result because the individual mandate was not deemed severable from the rest of the law.  Judge Vinson’s decision was then upheld in part and reversed in part when the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled August 12, 2011.  A three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court found, in a 2-1 decision, that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, but that it is severable from the remainder of the ACA and therefore that the rest of the health reform law should survive.

The Administration, which could have requested that the Eleventh Circuit re-hear the case en banc, filed their Petition for a Writ of Certiorari (the Petition) on September 27, 2011. By not pursuing the potential interim step of an en banc re-hearing the Administration has made it more likely that the Supreme Court will hear the case and make its ultimate ruling on the matter prior to the November 2012 election. Politically, this could be risky as some observers felt the Administration would not want to have a final decision by the Supreme Court come prior to the election. However, an en banc re-hearing would have carried some risk to the Administration since the Eleventh Circuit would have been free to fully affirm Judge Vinson’s original decision that if the individual mandate is unconstitutional then all of the ACA must be struck down.

The Petition argues that the Supreme Court should resolve the case because the decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals “conflicts with a decision of the Sixth Circuit and involves a question of fundamental importance.” The Administration argues in the Petition that the decision by the Eleventh Circuit on the issue of the individual mandate is “fundamentally flawed and denies Congress the broad deference it is due in enacting laws to address the Nation’s most pressing economic problems and set tax policy.”