The Individual Mandate Passes: ObamaCare Survives Supreme Court

In one of the most significant rulings in recent memory (perhaps since the awarding of the Presidency to George W. Bush in 2000), the Supreme Court upheld President Obama‘s health care law  in a nuanced interpretation of Federal versus states’ rights. The historic 5-4 decision will affect the way 30 million uninsured Americans receive and pay for their personal medical care.   Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote (another surprise since most expected it to be Justice Kennedy if the law passed) and wrote the opinion. The key factor was classifying the penalty for not abiding by the individual mandate — the requirement that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine — as a tax and therefore constitutional. “Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness,” wrote Roberts. The court’s four liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, joined Roberts in the outcome; Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

The Obama Administration had taken a different approach in its argument, saying that Congress had the authority to pass the individual mandate as part of its power to regulate interstate commerce; the court struck this down, but preserved the mandate as within Congress’ constitutional taxing powers. As Roberts put it, a person who does not wish to carry health insurance is left with a “lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice.”

The Republican-controlled House will vote July 11 for a full repeal of the health care law. It is a symbolic move that stands little chance of passage in the Democratic controlled Senate. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and GOP congressional leaders have pledged to repeal the law if they take control of Congress and the White House in November elections. The decision may silence critics who have claimed that the Roberts Court has been one of the more partisan in recent memory, particularly with its decision in the 2010 Citizens United case which took the cap off independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. The ACA drew the Supreme Court into the election-year crossfire over the role of government and the concerns about deficit spending,

The court did find one part of the law unconstitutional, saying its expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program threatened states’ existing funding. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the court ruled that the federal government can’t put sanctions on states’ existing Medicaid funding if the states decline to go along with the Medicaid expansion.”

Some reactions:

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.: “It’s up to the American people in the next election and their representatives to determine the fate of this law.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio: “The president’s health care law is hurting our economy by driving up health costs and making it harder for small businesses to hire. Today’s ruling underscores the urgency of repealing this harmful law in its entirety.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky: “Today’s decision makes one thing clear: Congress must act to repeal this misguided law.”

The full  impact of the ruling politically remains to be seen. The Wall Street Journal reflected the uncertainty: “The court’s decision, while a relief to Democrats, could further energize voters who dislike the law to back Republicans in November. And it forces the Obama administration to continue defending the unpopular insurance mandate, which the court has now made clear is legally equivalent to a tax on those who refuse to carry health insurance. On the other hand, the court’s blessing could itself shape public opinion of the law, particularly among independents and undecided voters who view the justices as relatively free of the partisan agendas of the government’s elected branches. Polls consistently show that the public places greater confidence in the Supreme Court than either Congress or the presidency, although the justices’ approval ratings have slipped somewhat over the past year.”

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