Kevin Sack on the 'Tea Party' Ruling on Obama-Care

The Times health reporter characterizes Judge Roger Vinson's ruling Obama-care as unconstitutional in ideological terms, but fails to label opponents of the ruling as liberal.
Health reporter Kevin Sack's "Reporters Notebook" on Wednesday, "Both Sides See a Nod to the Tea Party in Judge's Health Care Ruling," portrayed federal Judge Roger Vinson's ruling that Obama-care was unconstitutional in ideological terms. The online headline didn't hedge at all: "Tea Party Shadows Health Care Ruling."

Sack led off with complaints from the losing side.

Among the legal commentariat, which blogs its instant analysis after each turn in the health care litigation, one assertion in Monday's ruling against the law by Judge Roger Vinson is receiving particular attention.

While Sack sees ideology in the ruling, he commits labeling disparity, placing a supporters of Vinson's verdict on "the right" but fails to characterize an opponent at the left-wing ThinkProgress as on "the left."

"It is difficult to imagine," Judge Vinson, of Federal District Court in Pensacola, Fla., wrote in a central passage of his 78-page opinion, "that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place."

Supporters of the health care act - which Judge Vinson invalidated after ruling it was unconstitutional to require citizens to buy health insurance - saw in the language a deliberate nod to the Tea Party movement.

Whether that was the judge's intent cannot be known. But legal scholars who disagreed with the ruling seized on it as evidence that Judge Vinson, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, had infused his ruling with political bias.

"On first read, the most striking aspect of Judge Vinson's ruling today is not its remedy - striking the Affordable Care Act in its entirety - but the impression one gets that the opinion was written in part as a Tea Party manifesto," Mark Hall, a law professor at Wake Forest University, wrote on the blog Health Reform Watch.

Igor Volsky, a health policy analyst who writes on the blog ThinkProgress, also noted the judge's reference. "It's the kind of overreach that will do more to harm the Republican crusade against the law than help it," Mr. Volsky offered.

Not surprisingly, those who write from the right found Judge Vinson's wording worthy of applause. Ilya Shapiro, a constitutional scholar at the Cato Institute, cited the tea passage in his review of the judge's opinion, which he called "magisterial" and "breathtaking."

The paper's editorial page was not pleased, issuing an editorial on Wednesday "Judicial Activism on Health Reform" that also assumed Vinson made an intentional Tea Party reference, while emphasizing the judge was a Reagan appointee. Judges appointed by Democrats who rule in favor of gay marriage for some reason are never highlighted as such by the Times editorial page.

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