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Judge rules health-care law unconstitutional

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Florida sided Monday with 26 states to declare President Barack Obama’s health-care law unconstitutional, emboldening congressional Republicans who are vowing to repeal what they call “Obamacare” before the Supreme Court weighs in.

The Obama administration will appeal the ruling, and White House aides said they’d continue to implement the law in phases between now and 2014.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled that the law ‘s requirement that individuals obtain health insurance exceeds Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, in part because it attempts to regulate inactivity rather than activity.

Since the individual mandate is the “keystone or linchpin” of the law, Vinson also ruled that it and all the other provisions of the law “are all inextricably bound together in purpose and must stand or fall as a single unit.” Vinson, whom President Ronald Reagan appointed to the bench, wrote that he’d reached his decision “reluctantly.”

“This has been a difficult decision to reach, and I am aware that it will have indeterminable implications,” Vinson said. “At a time when there is virtually unanimous agreement that health-care reform is needed in this country, it is hard to invalidate and strike down a statute titled ‘The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.’”

Obama deputy senior adviser Stephanie Cutter, in a White House blog posting, called the ruling “a plain case of judicial overreaching” and “well out of the mainstream of judicial opinion.”

Vinson’s ruling follows last December’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson in Virginia, who found the individual mandate unconstitutional, and federal rulings last fall in Michigan and another Virginia district that supported the mandate.

Vinson’s ruling is broader because 26 states signed on to the Florida case and because he rejected not just the individual mandate but also the entire law.

The law includes provisions that cover people who have pre-existing conditions, young adults up to age 26 on their parents’ plans, seniors, small businesses, Medicaid recipients and others.

Democratic leaders and consumer and family advocacy groups who support the law criticized the ruling as political and predicted that it would be overturned.

Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, said the ruling was a gift to Republican governors and attorneys general who are friendly with private insurance companies. Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, called it “radical judicial activism run amok.” The American Public Health Association’s executive director, Georges C. Benjamin, said the ruling posed an “enormous” risk to millions of Americans.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said “there is little doubt the Supreme Court will be the final arbiter of this constitutional question.”

Opponents of the health-care law celebrated Vinson’s ruling..

Carrie Severino, chief counsel for the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, called the ruling “an unqualified victory for the Founders’ framework of principled, limited government.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, applauded the message that “the federal government should not be in the business of forcing you to buy health insurance and punishing you if you don’t.”

Two Senate Republicans, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Barrasso of Wyoming, said they would introduce legislation to let states opt out of the mandate and other provisions of the law.

The House of Representatives recently voted, largely on party lines, to repeal the law. Because Democrats control 53 of 100 Senate seats, a legislative repeal appears unlikely. Republicans also are considering ways to dismantle the law piece by piece or withhold the money needed to implement it.

But there are political considerations for both parties.

Some provisions are widely popular with Americans, especially those that would prevent insurers from dropping, refusing to cover or exorbitantly charging people with pre-existing conditions.

Cutter, in her blog post, acknowledged the difficulty of making the rest of the law work without the mandate. She said that “unless every American is required to have insurance, it would be cost prohibitive to cover people with pre-existing conditions.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said families are already benefiting from the law, including provisions that prohibit health insurance companies from denying coverage because someone has pre-existing conditions, and that allow children to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

“The Affordable Care Act outlawed some of the worst health insurance company abuses,” Castor said. “The key is making the new law work, not spending time and energy on old political fights or lawsuits.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, “We cannot leave this decision in the hands of judges alone. The Senate Democrat leadership should follow the House’s lead and hold an up-or-down vote to repeal Obamacare.”

Former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum filed the lawsuit in March, minutes after President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. Current Attorney General Pam Bondi is carrying it forward.

“This is about liberty, it’s not just about health care. And the federal government cannot force us to purchase a product or a good,” she said. “We all know we need health care reform. This is not the way to do it.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, founder of the nonprofit Conservatives for Patients’ Right, applauded the ruling.

“The judge has confirmed what many of us knew from the start: Obamacare is an unprecedented and unconstitutional infringement on the liberty of the American people,” Scott said in a prepared statement. “Patients should have more control over health care decisions than a federal government that is spending money faster than it can be printed.”

-- Janet Zink and Alex Leary of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, contributed to this report

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