Roger Vinson, the federal judge in Florida who said in January that the entire Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional, today issued a “clarification” of his earlier ruling. (The Obama Administration had asked the judge to specify what he meant in his original decision – that the law could continue while the issue makes its way through higher courts or that the law should stop immediately.) In his latest decision, Vinson responded by saying two things that, at first glance, seem almost contradictory.
First, he said that his early order was intended to have the same effect as an “injunction,” which would have unambiguously stopped implementation of the new health reform law in its tracks. Vinson wrote that his original opinion was clear and scolded the federal government for its insistence on clarification. In today decision, he even quoted his previous ruling in which he wrote that, “there is a long-standing presumption “that officials of the Executive Branch will adhere to the law as declared by the court. As a result, the declaratory judgment is the functional equivalent of an injunction.” In other words, “Duh, I meant the law is voided for now.” Vinson further wrote in today’s ruling, “The above language seems to be plain and unambiguous.” But yet it wasn’t. After Vinson’s decision in January, some Republican governors – like Alaska’s Sean Parnell - said that to continue implementation would be wrong. Democrat-led states and the Department of Health and Human Services, however, disagreed and continued to institute the law.
Second, Vinson issued a stay of his order, making it functionally meaningless. The stay is good for seven days. By the end of that period, according to Vinson’s decision, the government must file an appeal or the stay will be lifted and implementation halted. Vinson wrote today, “I agree [with the government] that it would indeed be difficult to enjoin and halt the Act’s implementation while the case is pending appeal. It would be extremely disruptive and cause significant uncertainty.” He also noted that a stay was appropriate because states have divergent views about whether they want to proceed or stop implementation in light of the current legal challenges. To allow some to stop implementation while others proceed would create chaos, Vinson concluded.
In a statement, the Department of Justice said this afternoon:
“We appreciate the court’s recognition of the enormous disruption that would have resulted if implementation of the Affordable Care Act was abruptly halted. We welcome the court’s granting of a stay to allow the current programs and consumer protections, including tax credits to small business and millions of dollars in federal grants to help states with health care costs, to continue pending our appeal in the Eleventh Circuit.
“We strongly disagree with the district court’s underlying ruling in this case and continue to believe – as three federal courts have found – that this law is constitutional. There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing the Affordable Care Act and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail on appeal.”
So the ACA continues unabated, so long as the Obama Administration appeals Vinson’s decision by March 10.
Wondering which side might ultimately prevail once this matter reaches the Supreme Court? Even Vinson doesn’t know, writing today:
The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be….I cannot say that the defendants do not have a likelihood of success on appeal. They do. And so do the plaintiffs.