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Judging the health-care law

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 13, 2010 - The new health-care law was ruled constitutional for the first time last week by a federal judge in Detroit.

The law has been the subject of much debate and has attracted challenges across the country. The ruling by U.S. District Judge George Steeh in the case of Thomas More Law Center, et al., v. Obama, et al. is the first on substantive provisions of the law.

At issue is whether or not the Commerce Clause of the Constitution gives Congress the authority to require all citizens to purchase health insurance. Under Steeh's reasoning, it does. The clause allows Congress to regulate interstate commerce, which Steeh said would be affected by individuals who choose not to purchase health insurance.

The plaintiffs in the case, three Michigan citizens and the Thomas More Law Center, argued that choosing not to buy health insurance represents a type of "inactivity" not covered by the Commerce Clause.

Even if considered a form of inactivity, the decision not to purchase health insurance carries major consequences, Judge Steeh concluded.

"By choosing to forgo insurance plaintiffs are making an economic decision to try to pay for health care services later ... collectively shifting billions of dollars ... onto other market participants," Steeh wrote. As a result, the possible consequences of inactivity ultimately justify the regulation of Congress under the Commerce Clause.

While this marks the first time the Commerce Clause has been used to regulate the decision of individuals not to purchase a product or service, the clause has previously been used to regulate non-commercial activities that would have affected the general economy.

In 1942, the Supreme Court ruled in Wickard v. Filburn that the Commerce Clause gave Congress the authority to set a quota for how much wheat a farmer could grow for personal consumption. Similarly, in 2005 the court held that Congress could also prohibit an individual from growing marijuana for personal use in Gonzales v. Raich. In each case, the court determined that the personal consumption habits of the individuals affected the stream of commerce.

Robert Muise, senior counsel for the law center, thinks the case is set up well for appeal. Muise said that he was glad Steeh agreed that the plaintiffs had standing to file the case. Without standing, the case could not have proceeded.

"I like our chances before the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 6th Circuit," he told the Washington Post Friday.

In addition to the potential appeals hearing of the Michigan case, two other lawsuits regarding the health-care law are each making their way to court in Florida and Virginia. The Florida suit, brought by elected officials from 20 states, is expected to be heard Dec. 16. The Virginia case is set for Oct. 18 and was filed by the state attorney general. Both the Florida and Virginia cases will address issues similar to those raised by the Thomas More Law Center and the citizens of Michigan.

Kraig Koch is a graduate student in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Prior to SIUC, he earned his Bachelor of Arts from Eastern Illinois University and, afterward, spent a year working for the clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court. Kraig will graduate with a Master of Science in Professional Media and Media Management in May 2011.

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