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FL judge grants stay of health-care ruling

From NBC's Pete Williams
After giving the Obama administration a severe tongue lashing, the federal judge in Florida who found the health-care law unconstitutional agreed today to put a hold on his own ruling while the government appeals.

Judge Roger Vinson said he never expected, after ruling Jan. 31 against federal agencies who were defending the law, "that they would effectively ignore the order and declaratory judgment for two and one-half weeks, continue to implement the Act" and then ask the judge to explain the practical effect of his own ruling. When a judge finds a law unconstitutional, Vinson said, it's assumed to have the force of an injunction, or order barring enforcement, because of a long-standing presumption that the government will comply with court rulings.

The judge found that the individual mandate in the law, requiring nearly all Americans to buy health insurance, exceeded the powers given to Congress by the Constitution. But because he said it could not be cleanly separated from the rest of the law, he declared the entire act unconstitutional.

In mid-February, the Justice Department asked the judge to clarify his ruling. His order, the government said, "potentially implicates hundreds of provisions of the Act and, if it were interpreted to apply to programs currently in effect, duties currently in force, taxes currently being collected, and tax credits that may be owed at this time or in the near future, would create substantial uncertainty."

Today, a clearly exasperated Judge Vinson said it was possible the government "may have perhaps been confused or misunderstood" his earlier order. He repeated that he meant for the administration to stop enforcing the health-care law. Even so, given the need for a quick resolution of the issue nationwide, he agreed to put his earlier order on hold, provided that the government seeks fast-track review in either a federal appeals court or directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The Justice Department said it would seek quick review in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. “We appreciate the court's recognition of the enormous disruption that would have resulted if implementation of the Affordable Care Act was abruptly halted," said a Department spokesman, Tracy Schmaler.

“We strongly disagree with the district court’s underlying ruling in this case and continue to believe - as three federal courts have found - that this law is constitutional,” she added.