The Justice Department said it would quickly appeal — as Judge Roger Vinson said it must. | AP Photo
U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson put the health care reform law on a fast track to the Supreme Court on Thursday — giving the Obama administration just seven days to file an appeal and signaling to fellow jurists that the time for a decision is now.
Vinson called his order a stay, but the real message was clear: Hurry up.
In one sense, the ruling was a victory for the Obama administration: It ended waves of confusion over whether states should continue working to implement the law. And in the hours after the ruling came down, some of the law’s strongest opponents, including Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, said that they had no choice but to go along.
But Vinson had plenty of harsh words for the White House, too, criticizing administration officials for waiting weeks before filing a motion to “clarify” the Jan. 31 ruling in which he held that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate — and, therefore, the entire act — violated the Constitution.
“It was not expected that they would effectively ignore the order and declaratory judgment for 2½ weeks, continue to implement the act and, only then, file a belated motion to ‘clarify,’” Vinson wrote.
The Justice Department said it would quickly appeal — as Vinson said it must.
“We appreciate the court’s recognition of the enormous disruption that would have resulted if implementation of the Affordable Care Act was abruptly halted,” Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said in a statement. “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.”
Vinson noted that the ACA passed 11 months ago and said, “The citizens of this country have an interest in having this case resolved as soon as practically possible.”
“It almost seems to be that he’s telling the 11th Circuit what they’re supposed to do,” said Tim Jost, a professor at Washington & Lee University School of Law. “I’m not sure they’re going to take very kindly to that.”
The case was brought by 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business. They had hoped for an injunction clearly barring implementation of the reform law, but they said Thursday that the expedited appeal is a good outcome.
“The government’s attempts to stymie the judicial process are simply prolonging the uncertainty surrounding the law and do a disservice to the states, small-business owners and individuals who are seeking resolution,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center.
In his January ruling, Vinson walked a tightrope between not issuing an injunction — which had a very high legal bar, particularly for it to apply to the entire law — and achieving the results of an injunction. It’s rare for a district court judge to bar enforcement of a federal law.
The suit is just one of about two dozen challenges to the ACA. Vinson is the only judge to throw out the entire law; he said the individual mandate is so intertwined with the rest of the ACA that he couldn’t invalidate one without striking down the other.
A federal judge in Virginia ruled the law’s requirement that individuals buy health insurance unconstitutional but upheld the rest. Three other judges have upheld the entire law.
Several other challenges have been thrown out on procedural grounds.
The rulings have followed a partisan pattern: The two district court judges who ruled against the law are Republican nominees, and the three who have ruled in its favor are Democratic nominees.
Sarah Kliff contributed to this report.
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