Earlier this week, Pensacola judge Robert Vinson released his long-awaited ruling in a much watched case on the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature health insurance reform legislation. Organized by various conservative attorneys generals and governors including newly sworn-in Pennsylvania Governor and former attorney general Tom Corbett, 26 states had joined in a class-action suit challenging the individual mandate portion of the law. Following a month after VA Judge Henry Hudson issued an opinion that found the law’s requirement that individual citizens must purchase health insurance or face a criminal penalty, Vinson’s opinion came down along the same lines, voiding the law entirely.
For the time being it is a crushing blow for the administration as his ruling means that implementation and all activity relating to the law is now null and void, pending the issuing of a stay or resolution of an appeal. When combined with two earlier opinions by other federal judges that upheld the law and the individual mandate, the split among the various judges means that the issue will inevitably be settled as it seemed destined to be, by the nine Justices of United States Supreme Court. Given the time frame the case will likely be argued and decided in the midst of the 2012 Presidential election campaign.
President Obama and his lawyers will no doubt vigorously defend the statute and given the make-up of the Supreme Court the outcome will likely rest in the hands of Justice Anthony M Kennedy, a Reagan appointee whose ideology is hard to pin down. He has sided with the conservatives in cases involving partial-birth abortion, affirmative action and gun control. However, he has sided with the liberals in cases involving abortion in general, gay rights, and the death penalty. It really is amazing that after all this time, all the town halls, all the debates in Congress, all the shouting, it will all come down to one 75 year old man who not one American has ever voted for, and who was the 3rd choice for his job at that. Funny how our system works.
Until the decision comes down, though, we can examine Vinson’s opinion to get an idea of the issues will be in the case. As Vincon put it, the main issue in the case is that of the nature of our government. Do we remain true to the founders’ vision of a government of limited powers or do we abandon that vision for a government of unlimited powers. As Judge Vinson put it at the outset of his opinion, the case is mainly about “our federalist system, and it raises very important issues regarding the Constitutional role of the federal government”.
Briefly, the question is whether the law’s requirement that individuals purchase health insurance is a legitimate exercise of Congress’ consitutional authority to regulate commerce among the states, or whether the provision falls outside the scope of that power. From the founding to the New Deal the Supreme Court held a more restrictive view. Since the New Deal they have held a more expansive view. This case will perhaps be the ultimate test of where they are currently and where they will be going forward.
In a larger sense, though, the case neatly sums up the fundamental question facing the nation going forward and heading into 2012. Do we continue to follow President Obama and his vision of a more active and powerful federal government, one that assumes a greater role in the lives of individual citizens. Or, do we follow the path advocated by conservatives and the tea party movement of a return to our founding principles of a limited government, one of defined and limited powers, one where citizens are free to make their own choices for themselves and their families. I know where James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would have stood. But their time was 1787. Where will we stand in 2012?