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Administration asks judge for clarity in ruling on health care reform

By Bill Mears, CNN
  • The Justice Department wants to know what it can do while awaiting resolution of the case
  • Some state officials say the ruling means they do not have to obey any parts of the law
  • The Justice Department continues to enforce parts of the law that had gone into effect

Washington (CNN) -- The Justice Department has asked a federal judge in Florida to clarify his ruling tossing out the landmark health care reform law, saying it has created confusion over parts of the law already in effect.

In a 19-page brief filed late Thursday, the Obama administration sought specific guidance on the impact of the court's decision.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson concluded the "individual mandate" -- the part of the law requiring nearly all Americans to purchase health insurance by 2014 or face financial penalties -- is unconstitutional. More importantly, Vinson added that because that key provision is not valid, the entire statute had to be dismissed.

"Because of the sweeping nature of the declaratory judgment, such an interpretation would pose a risk of substantial disruption and hardship for those who rely on the provisions that have already been implemented," government lawyers said in their motion.

The court ruling was a victory for Florida and 25 states that had challenged the law. Officials from some of those states have since stated they believe they do not have to obey the law any more. The administration, meanwhile, has continued to enforce parts of it.

A lawyer for the states, David Rivkin, planned to file a counter motion Friday, opposing the government's request for relief.

While the individual mandate would not go into effect for three more years at least, other parts of the health reform law are currently being administered, including small business tax credits, federal grants, and consumer protection measures. The federal government wants to know whether these provisions can continue while the issue is under appeal, particularly in the 26 states that filed this lawsuit. Oklahoma and Virginia have filed separate legal challenges.

The sweeping law has about 450 individual components.

In a separate move, the U.S. House of Representatives voted Friday to bar any federal agency from spending money on implementing the new health care law for the remainder of the current fiscal year. The vote was part of a larger spending cut measure promoted by the Republican majority.

Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that Vinson, while dismissing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, did not issue a formal injunction to block either parts of or the the entire law from going into effect.

The Justice Department asked Vinson -- named to the bench in 1983 by President Reagan -- to "clarify the scope" of his order and give the government the power to continue its obligations, as specified by Congress. If the judge refuses, government lawyers want clear guidance on what it can and cannot do while the case is under appeal, a multi-layered judicial process that could take many months to resolve.

The administration did not take the larger step of asking the Pensacola-based judge to put his entire ruling on hold, which would have limited the federal government's enforcement options.

Vinson in his ruling offered some support for various parts of the health care law. But he concluded that since the minimum coverage provision is invalid, every part of the 2,700-page law had to fall with that mandate.

Groups that helped file lawsuits opposing the law expressed initial concern the government's motion would further delay things.

"The government's claim of uncertainty only underscores that this case must proceed quickly to the 11th Circuit (appeals court) and then ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Karen Harned, executive director of the Small Business Legal Center of the National Federation of Independent Business. "Until the U.S. Supreme Court rules, small business owners and all Americans will be left questioning whether or not this law will stand."

Two federal judges have ruled the health care act to be constitutional, while two others have concluded the opposite. That sets up what is likely to be a Supreme Court showdown, perhaps as early as next year.

Officials in Virginia have officially asked the high court to consolidate all the two dozen-some appeals and accept the case for review now, before federal appeals courts have had a chance to weigh in. Such a step is rarely accepted by the high court, which traditionally prefers to have the full legal record at its disposal before accepting a case for review.

The case is State of Florida v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (3:10-cv-91).