In a strongly worded decision, Judge Roger Vinson said: "Because the individual mandate is unconstituional and not severable, the entire Act must be declared void."
The ruling is certain to be appealed, setting the stage for the cornerstone element of Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, four legal challenges have been decided by the courts, with the decisions equally split -- two for; two against -- the constitutionality of this health reform measure.
However, Vinson's ruling was significantly more sweeping than the previous victory for health reform opponents. A recent Virginia case struck down the same mandate, but did not speak to whether the rest of the reform effort could be salvaged.
The ruling rested on the commerce clause in the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the right to regulate economic activity between states. But the National Federation of Independent Business and 26 states that sued to block implementation of the law, maintained in a suit that this clause does not give Congress the right to regulate inactivity. In other words, Congress can stop you from doing something that's wrong -- but to force you to engage in economic activity, whether that's compelling you to start a business or buy health insurance once you have -- is stepping outside of the federal government's authority.
"The NFIB joined this case to protect the rights of small business owners to own, operate and grow their businesses free from unnecessary government intervention," said John Kabateck, NFIB/California Executive Director. "This individual mandate, which forces citizens to purchase government approved health insurance, undermines this core principle and gives the federal government entirely too much power."
Proponents of the health law called Vinson's ruling "judicial activism" that could have a devastating impact on people already helped by the law.
"If this decision were allowed to stand, it would have devastating consequences for America's families," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. "Children with re-existing conditions would once again be denied access to health care; insurers could take away health coverage and reinstate lifetime limits on coverage; small businesses would once again be priced out of the market; and seniors would lose their access to no-cost preventive services and help with the cost of prescription drugs."
More details about the case are posted in a special section of the NFIB's web site that also explains the tax credits that are supposed to help defray the cost of buying health insurance for small businesses and tax reporting requirements demanded by the law.
Meanwhile, the law remains in effect and will continue to be implemented in stair-step fashion, until the case is reviewed by higher courts. The individual mandate that would require everyone to buy health insurance is expected to be implemented in 2014, when the final pieces of the health reform act are slated to fall into place.