Earlier today, Judge Roger Vinson, a federal trial judge in Florida, issued a mostly procedural opinion ruling on the Department of Justice’s motion to dismiss a group of right-wing state officials’ lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. His opinion dismisses three of the state officials claims outright, while allowing their challenge to the law’s minimum coverage provision and its amendments to the Medicaid program to move forward.
Among the three dismissed claims is a challenge to the law’s “employer mandate,” which requires most employers to provide their employees with health insurance. Judge Vinson notes, correctly, that a law requiring employers to provide employee benefits is no different from a law requiring them to provide a minimum wage — and since the minimum wage is unquestionably permitted, the employer mandate also survives muster. Vinson also dismissed two completely implausible claims that the law imposes on state sovereignty and that it violates a radical doctrine that was once used to declare virtually all state labor protections unconstitutional.
Although Vinson allowed the plaintiffs’ Medicaid claim to move forward, he also hinted that this claim is unlikely to prevail in the end. As the Wonk Room previously explained, this claim rests on the absurd theory that Medicaid is unconstitutional because it is too generous to the states. Vinson notes that every single court to consider a similar claim has rejected it.
Sadly, however, Judge Vinson also engages in some highly implausible reasoning to escape dismissing the entire lawsuit outright. For starters, he cites favorably to a completely discredited decision holding a child labor law unconstitutional on the third page of his opinion.
The most troubling aspect of his opinion, however, is his conclusion that the law’s minimum coverage provision, which requires almost all Americans to either carry health insurance or pay slightly higher income taxes, was not properly enacted under Congress’ power to levy taxes. Judge Vinson does not claim that there is anything substantively wrong with the law. Rather, he relies on a Supreme Court decision from more than 100 years ago to claim that Congress’ taxing power does not apply largely because Congress called the minimum coverage provision something other than a “tax.”
There are all kinds of things wrong with this analysis. For one thing, the anachronistic Supreme Court decision that Vinson relies on comes from a wholly discredited era in constitutional law when the minimum wage and child labor laws were considered unconstitutional and the justices would routinely jump through hoops to prevent Congress from levying taxes that would encourage employers to treat their workers like human beings. This discredited theory of Congress’ taxing power has been firmly rejected by modern era justices, and should not be relied on by any judge living in the present century.
Just as importantly, Vinson’s theory makes no sense. If Vinson is right, than the constitutionality of federal laws depends not on what those laws actually do, but on whether Congress used the right magic words when they enacted the law.
Nevertheless, Vinson may still uphold the law as falling within Congress’ sweeping power to regulate the national economy. If he fails to do so, there is little doubt that he will be reversed on appeal.