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Capital Report

Judge clears healthcare law but still labeled unconstitutional

By Gina Jordan

Tallahassee, FL – A federal judge in Pensacola wants a legal challenge to the massive healthcare law put on a fast track to the nation's highest court. In late January, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson struck down the reform package as unconstitutional. It took more than two weeks for the Obama administration to file a motion asking the judge to clarify whether states could continue to implement the law. On Thursday, they got their answer. Gina Jordan reports.

Judge Vinson was clearly unhappy with the delayed response by the Justice Department to his original ruling. He scolded the feds for waiting to file their motion while continuing with plans to enact the law. Brad Ashwell is with the Florida Public Interest Research Group, which supports the healthcare overhaul.

"Now, Judge Vinson has come back and he's granted a petition by the Obama Administration to place a stay on that earlier decision so that the state can go ahead with implementation of the bill."

But the stay is contingent on the administration appealing Vinson's original ruling within seven days. This is where advocates on both sides of the issue agree.

"We want to see this case work through the appellate process as quickly as possible and come to a resolution at the Supreme Court."

Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is leading a 26-state legal challenge of the law, said in a statement that Vinson's ruling means no more stalling by the federal government. If the Justice Department doesn't file an appeal within a week, the stay will be lifted. The National Federation of Independent business joined the suit in an effort clarify the constitutional questions, according to Bill Herrle, NFIB's Florida director.

NFIB is ready to stand before the Supreme Court and defend small business owners' rights in this issue and we look forward to getting in front of the Supreme Court as early as possible."

Vinson's latest and sharply worded ruling affirmed his earlier decision that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional because of the individual mandate - the part requiring individuals to purchase insurance. But Ashwell says the healthcare overhaul remains the law of the land until the high court weighs in.

"By not following this law, the state is opening itself up to lawsuits, and that's just going to cost the taxpayers in the end. So we sincerely hope that the governor and other officials in the state House and Senate will just follow the letter of the law, implement the Affordable Care Act, and bring more health insurance to Floridians."

But there is some question about whether Florida's Office of Insurance Regulation will move on it. A spokesman says neither the governor nor the Legislature has given them the authority to proceed. NFIB's Herrle says his group has no interest in a stay, regardless of who benefits.

"Our interest is in advancing this to the Supreme Court. What is clear to us from Judge Vinson's ruling is that he is seeking to compel the Department of Justice to pick up the pace a little bit here."

Vinson wrote in part that "The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be." He said that "Despite what partisans for or against the individual mandate might suggest, this litigation presents a question with some strong and compelling arguments on both sides.