Appeals Court Rejects Part Of Health Care Law

A federal appeals court in Atlanta has ruled against the individual mandate contained in the new health care law, saying it is unconstitutional to require citizens to buy health insurance.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. A federal appeals court in Atlanta today struck down the section of the health care law passed last year that requires virtually all Americans to carry health insurance. But the court did leave intact the rest of the law.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us now. And Nina, this now means conflicting rulings on this from federal appeals courts. It all but forces the Supreme Court to weigh in, doesn't it?

NINA TOTENBERG: Yes. That's right. Earlier this summer, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati upheld the health care law, including the individual mandate. And now, the 11th Circuit in a case involving a challenge by Florida and many other states has struck down the mandate, so there's really no possible way for the Supreme Court to duck the issue.

BLOCK: And that earlier 6th Circuit decision that you mentioned, Nina, got a lot of attention because the principal opinion that upheld the law was written by a highly respected conservative Republican appointee who is a leading advocate of states' rights. What about this decision? Any surprises there?

TOTENBERG: Well, yes and no. Again, there's something of a political scramble. The decision was written jointly by Judge Joel Dubina of Alabama, the chief judge of the court, named to the bench by the first President Bush. As a note of interest, his daughter is a Tea Party Republican elected to Congress in 2010.

The opinion co-author, Judge Frank Hull, a woman judge, was appointed by President Clinton, but she's widely viewed as a pretty conservative Democratic appointee. The decision wasn't really a surprise, though, because it was pretty clear from the questions the judges asked at the time this case was argued that they didn't think the mandate was constitutional.

There was a third judge on the panel who dissented and would have upheld the mandate. Judge Stanley Marcus was appointed to the federal bench first by President Reagan and then promoted to the appeals court by President Clinton in 1997, when the Republicans controlled the Senate. Judge Marcus, at the time, was viewed as someone who could win confirmation from Republicans, but who was acceptable to Democrats.

BLOCK: Now, if you look briefly at today's decision, what did the judges say?

TOTENBERG: Well, nothing you haven't heard before. The majority, in a 207-page opinion, said the mandate exceeds Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce, that forcing people to buy health insurance or face a financial penalty is a step too far, that it would give Congress unbounded power to regulate anything and everything.

Judge Marcus, in dissent, accused the majority of disregarding longstanding Supreme Court precedent by striking down a comprehensive regulatory scheme adopted by Congress to ensure that those who need it get health care and that those who can pay for it rather than having taxpayers pick up the tab for those who choose not to carry health insurance, but end up still needing health care.

BLOCK: So in the end, a victory for those opposed to the health law's mandate, but I understand it does come with a caveat.

TOTENBERG: Well, the caveat is that the court left the rest of the health care law intact. Federal Judge Roger Vinson of Florida ruled that the mandate could not be separated from the rest of this bill, which has other provisions lots of Americans like, and that the mandate was to help pay for it.

So he struck down the whole thing, but the court today disagreed with that decision and upheld the rest of the law.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Nina Totenberg, thank you very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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