WASHINGTON (AP) — A conservative-leaning panel of US appellate judges on Tuesday upheld President Barack Obama's health care law as constitutional, helping set up a Supreme Court fight.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington issued a split opinion upholding the lower court's ruling that found Congress did not overstep its authority in requiring people to buy health insurance or pay a penalty on their taxes, beginning in 2014.
The requirement is the most controversial requirement of Obama's signature domestic legislative achievement and the focus of conflicting opinions from judges across the country. The Supreme Court is expected to decide soon, perhaps within days, whether to accept appeals from some of those earlier rulings.
The suit in Washington was brought by the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. It claimed that the insurance mandate is unconstitutional because it forces Americans to buy a product for the rest of their lives and that it violates the religious freedom of those who choose not to have insurance because they rely on God to protect them from harm.
But the court ruled that Congress had the power to pass the requirement to ensure that all Americans can have health care coverage, even if it infringes on individual liberty.
"The right to be free from federal regulation is not absolute and yields to the imperative that Congress be free to forge national solutions to national problems," Judge Laurence Silberman wrote in the court's opinion. Silberman was joined by Judge Harry Edwards.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh disagreed with the conclusion without taking a position on the merits of the law. He wrote a lengthy opinion arguing the court doesn't have jurisdiction to review the health care mandate until after it takes effect in 2014.
The federal appeals court in Cincinnati also upheld the law. The federal appeals court in Atlanta struck down the core requirement that Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty, while upholding the rest of the law.
And like Kavanaugh's dissenting opinion, an appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, ruled it was premature to decide the law's constitutionality.
The White House said Tuesday it is confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the law, as the Washington court did. Obama adviser Stephanie Cutter said in a White House blog post that opponents who say the individual mandate provision exceeded Congress' power to regulate commerce "are simply wrong."
"People who make a decision to forego health insurance do not opt out of the health care market," she wrote. "Their action is not felt by themselves alone. Instead, when they become ill or injured and cannot pay their bills, their costs are shifted to others. Those costs — $43 billion in 2008 alone — are borne by doctors, hospitals, insured individuals, taxpayers and small businesses throughout the nation."