Justice for John Yoo and Jay Bybee

The Obama administration got a well-deserved rebuke today from Judge Roger Vinson in the Florida lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Obamacare (aka the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). Judge Vinson issued a new order in response to a bizarre and obtuse “motion to clarify” that the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed on February 17.

Vinson’s original order on January 31 could not have been clearer: He declared the entire law unconstitutional and specifically said that, because he presumed that officials of the executive branch would adhere to the law as declared by a court, his declaratory judgment striking the law down was the functional equivalent of an injunction. Judge Vinson wrote then that he presumed that the executive branch would follow his order, which any lawyer (including a lawyer President) would know requires them to cease implementing Obamacare with respect to the 26 states that are plaintiffs and the National Federation of Independent Business. That turned out to be a faulty presumption, indeed.

After waiting more than two weeks, the Obama Administration filed an insulting motion that essentially said the federal government would not comply with the judgment unless Judge Vinson issued another order “clarifying” that he really meant what he said: that the executive branch was enjoined from implementing this unconstitutional law. This was a political motion, not a legal motion that any serious litigator would file. In fact, Judge Vinson said that if the government was really unable to understand his original order, “[i]t was not expected that they would effectively ignore the order and declaratory judgment for two and one-half weeks, continue to implement the Act, and only then file a belated motion to ‘clarify.'”

Vinson indirectly pointed out the Administration’s bad faith when he noted that DOJ lawyers said in their reply brief that the reason for the delay was because Vinson’s order needed “careful analysis.” Yet this was “contrary to media reports that the White House declared within hours after entry of [Vinson’s] order that ‘implementation will proceed apace’ regardless of the ruling.” Judge Vinson also wrote of the government’s legal citation in its most recent motion “borders on misrepresentation.”

So today, Judge Vinson reaffirmed that he meant it when he said the law was unconstitutional and that he had expected the executive branch to abide by his decision. Judge Vinson said the language in his original order “seems to be plain and unambiguous. Even though I expressly declared that the entire Act was ‘void,’ and even though I emphasized that ‘separate injunctive relief is not necessary’ only because it must be presumed that ‘the Executive Branch will adhere to the law as declared by the court,’ which means that ‘declaratory judgment is the functional equivalent of an injunction,’ the defendants have indicated that they ‘do not interpret the Court’s order as requiring them to immediately cease [implementing and enforcing the act].'” The judge was obviously annoyed that the government has “reportedly continued with full implementation.” He went on to “clarify” his order that he expected his declaratory judgment to “be treated as the ‘practical’ and ‘functional equivalent of an injunction.'”

The plaintiffs had asked the judge to treat the DOJ’s motion to “clarify” as a motion for a stay and to deny the motion. Judge Vinson did treat the motion to clarify as a motion to stay his earlier judgment but then offered a clever compromise to the Obama Administration: He granted a stay for seven days but only on the condition that the Administration file an appeal within that period that requests expedited appellate review, either in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit or in the Supreme Court. Judge Vinson also noted that the appeal could be expedited because the briefing on the underlying legal issues was already submitted in his court.

This is a serious strategic loss for the government. Judge Vinson has challenged the federal government to speed up the appeals process, which would normally take much longer, forcing the hand of the Administration, which would like to slow down the litigation through questionably legal tactics if it can get away with it so it can implement as much of Obamacare as possible before it gets to the Supreme Court. And it is also a clever suggestion to the appellate courts that will next hear these claims: The Administration’s dilatory tactics should not trump the rule of law. As Judge Vinson correctly observed, “[i]t is very important to everyone in this country that this case move forward as soon as practically possible.” Important to everyone except the Obama Administration.

Co-authored by Todd Gaziano.