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Federal judge stays ruling tossing out health care reform law

By Bill Mears, CNN
Health care reform has been a hotly debated and protested issue for more than a year.
Health care reform has been a hotly debated and protested issue for more than a year.
  • Judge Roger Vinson asks the Obama administration to expedite an appeal
  • Judge: The government "may have perhaps been confused or misunderstood" his ruling
  • Two federal judges have upheld the health care law and two have ruled against it

(CNN) -- A federal judge in Florida issued a stay Thursday of his recent ruling that the sweeping health care reform law championed by President Obama is unconstitutional.

Judge Roger Vinson also ordered the administration to expedite an appeal into whether current parts of the law can remain temporarily in effect.

Vinson ruled January 31 that the "individual mandate" -- a key provision requiring most Americans to purchase health insurance or face financial penalties -- was unconstitutional. He then tossed out the entire law.

The Obama administration sought specific guidance, claiming confusion over its mandate to enforce parts of the law now currently being implemented. Some states said they would refuse to recognize the law in the wake of that decision.

"While I believe that my order was as clear and unambiguous as it could be," wrote Vinson, "it is possible that the defendants (the government) may have perhaps been confused or misunderstood its import."

The Justice Department now has one week to file a notice of appeal with the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said the state did not welcome the stay of Vinson's decision, but noted the order will ensure "that there will be no more stalling from the federal government."

"While we are disappointed that the stay was granted, we are satisfied that (the Department of Justice) now has only seven days to file their appeal and seek expedited review or they will lose the stay," Bondi said in a statement issued by her office.

Vinson, a 1983 Reagan appointee, criticized the administration for moving less than swiftly to appeal, and noted the urgency of getting the issue settled with finality, a task he said only one court can accomplish.

"The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the nation will be," he wrote in his 20-page order. "And yet, it has been more than one month from the entry of my order and still the defendants have not filed their notice of appeal."

The original 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.

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 wanted 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 last month voted 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.

Vinson, while dismissing the health care reform law -- known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- did not issue a formal injunction to block either parts of or the entire law from going into effect. But the government never sought an immediate "stay" of his ruling, seeking instead the "clarification," a process that took more than a month to be resolved. Asking for a stay might 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, no part of the 2,700-page law could be enforced.

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.

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