Appeals court rejects constitutional challenge to Obamacare

A federal appeals court has rejected a conservative challenge to President Obama’s healthcare law, ruling that the legislation did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s “origination clause.”

Opponents of the health law have brought a series of constitutional challenges to court, none of which have succeeded in derailing the law so far. One came close to doing so in the Supreme Court in 2012 and another seems headed to the high court. By contrast, this latest challenge, although a favored argument in some conservative circles, has gotten little legal traction.

The case was brought by Matt Sissel, a self-employed artist from Iowa who has also been a member of the National Guard. Sissel’s lawyers told federal judges that he “could afford health insurance if he wanted,” but “does not have, need or want health insurance.”


The law requires that he either buy insurance or pay a tax. Although the Supreme Court upheld that so-called individual mandate in 2012, Sissel raised an issue not involved in that previous case: The law, he said, violated a constitutional clause requiring that “bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.”

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act argue that the law violated that rule. It includes several tax measures, but passed the Senate first before being taken up in the House.

Supporters of the law have dismissed that claim, saying that the House followed a procedure used for many years by both parties in which the majority took a House bill that was already under consideration, amended it to include the text of the Senate-passed bill, then voted on the amended bill as a way to satisfy the “origination clause” rule.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in a 3-0 ruling Tuesday in Sissel vs. HHS, said such procedural sleight of hand was beside the point. Supreme Court rulings going back to the earliest days of the nation have made clear that not every bill which includes a tax is a “bill for raising revenue” that triggers the requirement for the House to act first, the court noted.

A bill falls under the origination clause rule only if its “primary purpose” is to raise revenue, Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote for the court. Many laws raise taxes that are “incidental” to another purpose, she noted.

In the case of the Affordable Care Act, the “paramount aim” was to increase the number of Americans with healthcare coverage. The tax involved in the individual mandate is only a way of achieving that goal by prodding people to buy insurance, even if the tax does end up raising significant sums of money, Rogers wrote.

“Successful operation of the act would mean less revenue ... not more,” she noted.

Because the law’s revenue-raising provisions are “incidental” to its main purpose, the origination clause does not apply, Rogers ruled. She was joined by appeals court Judges Robert L. Wilkins and Cornelia T.L. Pillard. Rogers was appointed to the court by President Clinton. Wilkins and Pillard were appointed by Obama.

Lawyers for the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, the conservative legal ground which represented Sissel, said they would appeal the ruling further. “Eventually, this case will likely have to go to the Supreme Court,” principal attorney Timothy Sandefur said in a statement.

The appeals court’s opinion allows judges to “pick and choose whether the constitutional rules on the enactment of new taxation should apply” depending on their view of a law’s main purpose, he said. “We think that’s wrong.”

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