Judge Christopher C. Conner of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled this week that the mandate requiring individuals to purchase health insurance under the recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Public Law 111-148, is unconstitutional.  See Opinion, Goudy-Bachman v. United States Department of Health and Human Services (M.D. Pa. Sept. 13, 2011) (PDF).  In doing so, Judge Conner expressly disagreed with the Sixth Circuit. 

As we reported back in late June, the Sixth Circuit became the first federal appellate court in the country to uphold Congress’s power to enact the health care statute’s individual mandate under the Commerce Clause.  See Thomas More Law Center, et al. v. Obama, et al. (Sixth Circuit, Case No. 10-2388).  But it was a split decision.  Only Circuit Judges Martin and Sutton agreed that the individual mandate was a constitutional exercise of Congress’s Commerce Clause power.  Senior District Judge Graham vehemently dissented, stating that “[i]f the exercise of power is allowed and the [individual] mandate upheld, it is difficult to see what the limits on Congress’s Commerce Clause authority would be.”  According to Judge Graham, the Sixth Circuit’s majority opinion effectively gives Congress a general police power that the Tenth Amendment is supposed to reserve for the states and the people. 

As we also reported back in August, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that individual mandate is unconstitutional.  See State of Florida, et al. v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, et al. (Eleventh Circuit, Case No. 11-11021).  Thus, a Circuit split was created on whether the individual mandate exceeds Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause.

In his opinion striking down the individual mandate, Judge Conner noted that he was “well aware” of the various district court decisions and the most recent Circuit Court opinions on the constitutionality of the individual mandate.  Indeed, his opinion includes a lengthy discussion of the Sixth Circuit’s opinions in Thomas More.  Judge Conner also cited heavily (and favorably) from Judge Graham’s Sixth Circuit dissent in striking down the individual mandate. 

Judge Conner stated that he was unable to find any precedent permitting the expansion of the Commerce Clause authority to regulate individuals prior to their engagement in commercial activity simply on the basis of the unique nature of the market being regulated.  Judge Conner concluded that “[t]he power to regulate interstate commerce does not subsume the power to dictate a lifetime financial commitment to health insurance coverage.”  Similar to Judge Graham, he stated that if the individual mandate is upheld as constitutional, such a ruling “would effectively sanction Congress’s exercise of police power under the auspices of the Commerce Clause, jeopardizing the integrity of our dual sovereignty structure.”

As to the issue of severability, Judge Conner concluded that given the breadth of the health care statute and in light of Congress’s overarching intent to mend the ailing health care services market, he would exercise caution and sever only the problematic portions while leaving the remainder intact.  Thus, like the Eleventh Circuit, Judge Conner did not set aside the entire statute.

Judge Conner’s opinion this week is simply the latest skirmish in the war over the individual mandate.  Most court observers agree that the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to step in (perhaps before the Third Circuit gets an opportunity to review Judge Conner’s decision).  As we previously reported, the plaintiffs in the Thomas More case already have filed their petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the High Court to reverse the Sixth Circuit’s June 29, 2011 divided panel decision.  Stay with us, as we continue to monitor all the relevant battles in the health care war.