On Monday, Judge Roger Vinson, a Reagan appointee, struck down the Affordable Care Act. The New York Times today published an editorial condemning Judge Vinson’s decision to find the entire health care bill unconstitutional as "a breathtaking example of judicial activism and overreach." When judges strike down part of a law as unconstitutional, the traditional practice is to issue a ruling as narrowly as possible, leaving intact parts of the law that do not raise constitutional concerns. Yet with reasoning that the New York Times characterized as "stretched past the breaking point," Judge Vinson invalidated the entire law after finding that the individual mandate was unconstitutional.
In his ruling, Judge Vinson wrote that the law "has approximately 450 separate pieces, but one essential piece (the individual mandate) is defective and must be removed." Yet his broadly-constructed ruling struck down all 450 pieces.
In finding that the individual mandate was not severable from the rest of the Act, Judge Vinson’s reasoning used language nearly identical to that of an amicus brief submitted by the Family Research Council, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as a hate group because of its defamation of gays and lesbians. Vinson's opinion also gave a nod to the conservative Tea Party movement, writing that "a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place."
Of the challenges to the Affordable Care Act to be decided on the merits so far, the outcomes have broken along partisan lines, with two Republican-appointed judges finding the law unconstitutional and two Democrat-appointed judges upholding it.
This case demonstrates what Alliance for Justice has long espoused: progressives need to care about who sits on the federal bench. Ideologically-driven judges like Vinson have proven themselves all too willing to dismantle hard-fought pieces of legislation like the Affordable Care Act in order to advance a political agenda from the bench. We need fair and independent judges who will not twist the law to advance a right-wing agenda and favor powerful interests over everyday Americans.
There are currently 48 judicial nominees pending before the Senate and over 100 judicial vacancies. But obstructionist Republicans in the Senate have been bent on preventing President Obama from filling these vacancies, even in those courts facing "judicial emergencies." Judge Vinson’s decision is a stark reminder that the fate of the President's agenda, as well as many other important laws and policies, will be decided in the courts. It is time for those who care about health care, civil liberties, consumer protection, worker rights, and other issues that go to the core of our democracy, to get serious about the courts and work to ensure that President Obama's judicial nominees are confirmed.