Health care law ruling: How the Democrats gave a Judge Roger Vinson an opening to invalidate the law.

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Jan. 31 2011 7:56 PM

Into the Void

How the Democrats gave a conservative judge an opening to invalidate the health care law.

Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

Conservatives pleased about Judge Roger Vinson's 78-page decision rendering "void" the entire Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 can send their letters of thanks to a group that doesn't get many of them—and is sure to get few from its liberal supporters outraged by the decision. I refer, of course, to Senate Democrats.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

One year ago, in the aftermath of Republican Scott Brown's upset win in the Massachusetts Senate race, Democrats faced a dilemma. They lacked the votes to pass a massive health care overhaul, which had already been passed by the House and Senate but would need to be approved again by both if it were changed in conference committee. They had two options. They could scrap the bill entirely and try to get through a few popular reforms. (This was the approach favored by then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.) Or the House could ram through the Senate's version of the bill, with no public option and a host of the other problems that crop up in months of messy infighting and committee work.

Democrats chose the second option. The bill became law. Republican attorneys general in Virginia, Florida, and eventually 25 other states joined lawsuits to overturn the law. They argued that the legislation's individual mandate, which would start in 2014 and fine people who did not obtain health insurance, was unconstitutional. And today, Judge Roger Vinson of Florida's Northern District ruled that they were right. Oh, and one more thing:

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"Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable," writes Vinson, "the entire Act must be declared void."

The bill passed by the House and Senate did not include a severability clause. Most big pieces of legislation include such a clause, which typically explains that "invalidity or unenforceability of one or more provisions of this Agreement shall not affect any other provision of this Agreement."

So how did the Democrats fumble this? Shortly after Monday's decision, a few liberal attorneys got on the phone for a call with reporters, sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the American Constitution Society. I asked Neera Tanden, who's now the chief operating officer at CAP but who was a senior adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services during the passage of the bill, why there was no severability clause.

"One of the reasons there was not was that there was a keen understanding in the process that courts generally have a deferential view of severability and try to make the rulings have the least impact," she said. "And that took the pressure off the severability clause."

That was the thinking at the time from plenty of experts. Two months ago, Washington and Lee University law professor Timothy Jost told Brian Beutler—one of the first reporters to notice the severability slip-up—that it was unlikely that a lower court would void the entire health care bill if it voided the mandate, because "the normal rule is that partial invalidation is the required course."* Today, his optimism left tattered on Judge Vinson's carpet, Jost intimated that the Senate had made a mess of things.

"This was the Senate bill that was passed in December," said Jost. "Everyone expected that there would be a conference committee that would straighten out the issues in the bill. And then there was Scott Brown's election."

In his decision, Vinson argues that Congress' failure to include a severability clause was a clear indication that every piece of the law needed to survive for any piece of it to work. He cites the 2006 decision in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of New England, arguing that it is not up to the courts to try and salvage the good parts of a law that has been partially struck down.