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By Eric Stirgus September 1, 2012

Olens make oral argument on health care ruling at GOP convention

Most Republicans were fuming after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its highly anticipated ruling on the federal government’s controversial health care law in June, which was widely seen as a win for President Barack Obama, who pushed it through Congress.

And so we found it surprising when Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens declared a victory of sorts in the case during his remarks at the Republican National Convention.

"We prevailed on our two main arguments," Olens said.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was alongside Olens, explained.

"The court agreed that the commerce clause of the Constitution does not allow the federal government to force you to purchase a product you don’t want," she said. "The court agreed that the Constitution does not allow the federal government to force states to adopt a budget-busting expansion of Medicaid."

The two attorney generals then led the convention hall in a call-and-response that voiced their displeasure with the law they derisively call "Obamacare."

We decided to weigh the evidence of this claim about victory on the two main arguments and put its accuracy on trial in our PolitiFact courtroom. Did Olens and Co. win on the commerce clause argument and their point about Medicaid?

The health care bill was signed into law by Obama in March 2010. The National Federation of Independent Business, 26 states, including Florida and Georgia, and some individuals joined forces to file a lawsuit to have the new law overturned. They argued it violated the U.S. Constitution on several fronts. The original complaint was filed in a federal court in Florida, led by Bill McCollum, who was then the state’s attorney general; Bondi was his successor. Olens was elected as Georgia’s attorney general in November 2010 and took office the following January.

Let’s first deal with the Medicaid claim. The law expands the number of people eligible for insurance. The law provides that the federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs of covering these individuals through 2016. In the following years, the federal payment level gradually decreases, to a minimum of 90 percent. The states that sued said the eligibility expansion would be a burdensome cost. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
"As for the Medicaid expansion, that portion of the Affordable Care Act violates the Constitution by threatening existing Medicaid funding," Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote. "Congress has no authority to order the States to regulate according to its instructions. Congress may offer the States grants and require the States to comply with accompanying conditions, but the States must have a genuine choice whether to accept the offer."

Now, about the other part of Olens’ claim. Nels Peterson, Georgia’s solicitor general, said Olens was correct because the court agreed with the states’ argument that the individual mandate is not a valid exercise of Congress’ power under the commerce clause in the U.S. Constitution.

"Upholding the Affordable Care Act under the Commerce Clause would give Congress the same license to regulate what people do not do," Roberts wrote. "The Framers knew the difference between doing something and doing nothing. They gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it. Ignoring that distinction would undermine the principle that the Federal Government is a government of limited and enumerated powers. The individual mandate thus cannot be sustained under Congress’s power to ‘regulate Commerce.‘ "

Peterson said the court found another rationale to rule in favor of the individual mandate. Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that the individual mandate could stand, instead, because it may "reasonably" be characterized as a tax.

"Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness," Roberts wrote.

Peterson described Olens’ argument about the legal arguments a "sophisticated, subtle point."

"We won on our two main arguments," Peterson said, "but lost anyway."

Kathleen Burch, who teaches constitutional law at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, said the argument made at the convention was somewhat misleading because the federal government had argued in the lower courts that it had the power to apply an individual mandate under the Constitution’s taxing and spending clause.

"It is true that the primary, meaning leading argument, made by the states was that the individual mandate violates the commerce clause, but the federal government came back and said that it had the power under the taxing and spending clause," Burch said.

The plaintiff’s original complaint in Florida argued that the federal government could not impose an individual mandate "under Article I of the Constitution of the United States, and cannot be upheld under the Commerce Clause … the Taxing and Spending Clause, id.; or any other provision of the Constitution."

"In some ways [Olens’] argument was a little disingenuous because of its omissions," Burch said.

Again, Olens said the states prevailed on their two main arguments. The attorney general was correct that they won their arguments on the commerce clause and about Medicaid. But a part of the states’ original argument was also that the government couldn’t use the taxing and spending clause to make individuals buy health insurance. We believe that additional information is necessary to examine this claim.

Our verdict: Mostly True.

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Our Sources

YouTube video of remarks by Sam Olens, recorded Aug. 29, 2012.

Federal court complaint against health care law, filed March 23, 2010.

SCOTUSblog, "A taxing, but potentially hopeful decision," June 28, 2012.

Telephone interview with Georgia Law Department attorneys Britt Grant and Nels Peterson, Aug. 30, 2012.

Telephone interview with Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School professor Kathleen Burch, Aug. 31, 2012.

The Washington Post, "Supreme Court puts new limits on Commerce Clause. But will it matter?," June 28, 2012.

U.S. Supreme Court ruling on federal health care law, June 28, 2012.

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Olens make oral argument on health care ruling at GOP convention

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