Why Judge Vinson's Ruling Matters


When Judge Roger Vinson ruled that because the health care overhaul's individual mandate was unconstitutional yesterday, critics of the law—myself includedcheered. But did it really change the overarching legal situation?

In some technical sense, no. So when Kevin Drum, for example, argues that while the ruling is bad for the law's supporters, it "doesn't really do much to change the state of play," he's not exactly wrong. The path forward is still essentially the same today as it was last week: The constitutionality of the individual mandate will still be decided by the Supreme Court, whether by the swing-voting Anthony Kennedy, or perhaps, as Damon Root writes, by another justice.

Yet the ruling is nonetheless likely to have a subtle, but potentially significant, effect on the decisions to come. As Ezra Klein writes, Vinson's ruling, which voided the entire law, was more "sweeping than previous rulings, [and] opened up the right side of the debate." Judge Hudson's previous ruling in Virginia that the mandate was unconstitutional declined to strike the rest of the law. Judge Vinson's ruling helps legitimize the idea that if the mandate is unconstitutional, the rest of the law should be struck down with it.

I asked Ilya Shapiro, a legal scholar at the Cato Institute, if he thought the ruling helped firm up the case against the mandate, and he came to much the same conclusion. "No higher-ups are bound," he wrote back over email. "But they are influenced. Judges, like anyone else, don't want to reinvent the wheel where they don't have to." The influence may be hard to quantify, he says, but it's real: "It would be laughable to think that the outcome before the Court would be the same regardless of how the decisions on the merits before several thoughtful district judges went."

Ultimately, higher courts may choose not to directly cite or rely on Judge Vinson's ruling, but, Shapiro says, "don't for a second think they ain't payin' attention."