By Trevor Brown
CNHI News Service
OKLAHOMA CITY —
A federal judge’s ruling Monday against a key provision of the federal health care reform bill could provide ammunition for Oklahoma to mount its own legal challenge or join an existing one, Attorney General-elect Scott Pruitt said.
U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson struck down a section of the bill that says the federal government cannot mandate that people purchase insurance and punish them if they don’t.
The entire reform law, a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s presidency, has been upheld by two other federal judges in Virginia and Michigan.
Hudson’s ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli argued that while the government can regulate economic activity that substantially affects interstate commerce, the decision not to buy insurance amounts to economic inactivity that is beyond the government’s reach.
Hudson is no stranger to the public eye. Known as a tough judge, Hudson, whose bench is in Richmond, was the presiding judge for the infamous dog fighting case against now revitalized Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
Hudson, a Republican who was appointed by President George W. Bush, sounded sympathetic to Virginia’s case when he heard oral arguments in October, and the White House expected to lose this round, according to reports by The Associated Press.
Hudson’s ruling, which is expected to be appealed and could reach the U.S. Supreme Court, could directly affect Oklahoma’s expected move to block the health care legislation. Pruitt said he is waiting to decide whether to join Virginia’s lawsuit or pick an alternate legal path to block the reforms.
But Pruitt said whichever method he chooses to bring Oklahoma into the legal fight, Monday’s announcement gives strength to all the advocates fighting to repeal the bill.
“The issue at hand is much larger than health care,” Pruitt said in a statement. “As Judge Hudson said today, forcing Americans to purchase a product, or face a penalty, would invite the unbridled exercise of federal police powers.”
The lawsuit that Virginia brought is one of several moving through the court system. Twenty states joined a lawsuit led by Florida, where a motion for summary judgments will be heard later this month. Virginia elected to file the lawsuit separately from the Florida group because the state was unique at the time for having already passed a bill to block requirements that residents purchase health care insurance.
Oklahoma joined Arizona and Colorado in passing ballot questions in November, which could give the state a separate legal route since they include constitutional amendments opting out of the bill. But Pruitt said joining either the Virginia or Florida cases is also an option.
“We are supportive of both lawsuits,” Pruitt said. “We believe Oklahoma is uniquely positioned, as was Virginia, to impact the challenge of this abuse in power with the state constitutional amendment Oklahomans overwhelming passed last November that affirmed our right to opt-out of the federal health care law.”
Crystal Drwenski, Pruitt’s chief of staff, said there are no specifics yet on any costs related to possibly filing or joining one of the lawsuits. She said the issue still is being investigated and discussed.
Oklahoma had the option to join Florida and the other states earlier in the year. However, Attorney General Drew Edmondson declined to join the lawsuit.
Charlie Price, a spokesman for Edmondson, said the office arrived at the decision because Oklahoma would not gain anything more for signing on to the legal challenge. But the state could suffer losses if it did join the lawsuit, he said.
“No matter what these federal courts rule, it would still be applicable to Oklahoma because we, like everyone, would be part of these court rulings,” Price said. “That way we wouldn’t have to extend any additional resources, and we would get the same result.”
Price said the cost for the state to join the legal challenge would depend on the number of hours and lawyers it enlists to submit the paperwork and perform other tasks. But he said a more severe consequence could come if the lawsuit is defeated and the federal government seeks money from the states for its time and resources.
Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat like Edmondson, also blocked a bill to opt out of the reform package when he vetoed a proposal in May.
“No state has the authority to selectively ignore federal laws of its choosing, and any attempt to do so will be ruled unconstitutional by the courts, but not before a costly legal battle,” Henry said when he vetoed the bill. “It will simply trigger an exercise in legal futility that results in a hefty bill for Oklahoma taxpayers and the potential loss of federal funding for important health care programs currently in place.”
In response to the veto, lawmakers approved a bill to send the measure to voters, who approved the state question by 64.73 percent.
Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI News Service and CNHI newspapers including the Stillwater NewsPress. He can be reached at email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.