Judge grants stay of decision striking down Dems' healthcare law

A federal judge who struck down the entire healthcare reform law issued a stay of his ruling to give the Obama administration seven days to file an expedited appeal.

The administration asked U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson for a clarification of his Jan. 31 ruling after some states effectively declared the health law dead in light of the ruling.

Vinson's ruling allows the administration to continue implementation of the healthcare law while taking their appeal to the next level.

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Vinson said the declaratory judgment in favor of the 26 states and National Federation of Independent Business who challenged the law was intended to be “the functional equivalent of an injunction.” However, the administration said that Vinson never addressed in his decision how the law should be stopped.

In his clarification, Vinson criticized the administration for continuing to implement the law while delaying its request for a stay of the decision.

It was not expected that it would effectively ignore the order and declaratory judgment for two and a half weeks, continue to implement the act, and then file a belated motion to “clarify,” Vinson wrote.

Vinson sympathized with the administration’s argument that halting the law would potentially disrupt hundreds of other provisions not related to the individual mandate. Some have already gone into effect, and many more will become effective before the mandate takes hold in 2014.

Vinson, a Reagan appointee, became the first federal judge to strike down the entire healthcare overhaul on Jan. 31, when he found that the law’s requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance is unconstitutional and cannot be severed from the rest of the law.

“The conspicuous absence of a severability clause — which is ordinarily included in complex legislation as a matter of routine — could be viewed as strong evidence that Congress recognized that the Act could not operate as intended if the individual mandate was eventually struck down by the courts,” Vinson wrote in his remarks Thursday.

The administration has seven days to file an appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Under the terms of Vinson’s stay, they must ask for an expedited review.

Three federal judges so far have upheld the healthcare reform law enacted 11 months ago, while Vinson and another federal judge have struck it down.

Lawmakers from both parties have called on the administration to ask the Supreme Court to fast-track the numerous challenges to the health law, but the administration is content to allow the normal appeals process to play out. Stipulating the administration must ask for an expedited appeal in the 11th Circuit or the Supreme Court, Vinson criticized the administration for taking its time through the appeals process.

“The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be,” Vinson said. “And yet, it has been more than one month from the entry of my order and judgment and still the defendants have not filed their notice of appeal.”

To date, federal judges have ruled on the healthcare reform law by party lines. The three judges who have upheld the individual mandate are all Clinton appointees, while those striking it down are all Republican appointees. Many legal observers believe the challenges will reach the Supreme Court in 2012, making the health law’s constitutionality a huge issue in the upcoming presidential election.

Both sides of the debate found something they liked in the Vinson's order. Although the judge did not halt the law's implementation, the NFIB said Vinson's demand for an expedited review is "very good news."

"We strongly agree and are confident Judge Vinson’s decision finding the entire law to be unconstitutional will prevail," said NFIB executive director Karen Harned.

The pro-reform Families USA, noting that federal judges are split over the law's constitutionality, said Vinson was right not to hold up the law. 

"It would have been bizarre and inappropriate for one judge to halt implementation of the entire law while appeals continue," said Families USA director Ron Pollack in a statement.

Vinson's order had an immediate impact in Alaska, where Gov. Sean Parnell (R) said the state would reverse course and work to implement the law. After Vinson's January ruling, Parnell said the state would stop implementation, and he passed up federal money to plan a statewide health insurance exchange mandated by the law.

"Our administration will treat the federal health care law as being in place, as we are directed by the judge in the lawsuit to which our state was a party," Parnell said in a statement. “Going forward, Alaska will make decisions on a case-by-case basis whether the state will undertake with our own money or with federal money how to implement the provisions of the law."

—This story was last updated at 3:38 p.m.