U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “ObamaCare”) is front-page, top-of-website screen news today. It dealt a significant legal blow to ObamaCare by declaring the individual mandate unconstitutional and voiding the law in its entirety. Like Judge Henry Hudson in Virginia v. Sebelius, Judge Vinson found that Section 1501 of the law, which forces all Americans to buy health insurance policies, “falls outside the boundary of Congress’ Commerce Clause authority and cannot be reconciled with a limited government of enumerated powers.” Judge Vinson’s 78-page order, which ruled on the merits of a lawsuit brought by 26 states, was scholarly, measured, and highly persuasive.
But before the ink had even dried, the White House quickly sprang into action, issuing a statement attacking Judge Vinson as “out of the mainstream” and accusing him of “judicial activism” and “overreach.” Nonsense. Federal courts have a duty to strike down laws that violate the Constitution because the Constitution is supreme. As Chief Justice Marshall observed in Marbury v. Madison, “If then the courts are to regard the constitution; and the constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature; the constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply.”
Judge Vinson perhaps had Chief Justice Marshall’s admonition in mind when he observed:
Regardless of how laudable its attempts may have been to accomplish these goals in passing the Act, Congress must operate within the bounds established by the Constitution. Again, this case is not about whether the Act is wise or unwise legislation. It is about the Constitutional role of the federal government.
By upholding the Constitution, Judge Vinson’s decision is the very opposite of judicial activism. In stark contrast, judicial activism occurs when judges make decisions not based on the Constitution, but on their own personal policy preferences, often in flagrant disregard of the Constitution itself. Contrary to what the Administration and others may think, activism does not refer to judges merely striking down legislation, but to judges actively advancing their own policy agenda through judicial decision-making.
Only in Washington can government officials who have just been judged to have exceeded their constitutional authority accuse someone else of overreach.