PENSACOLA, Fla. — The judge who ruled the Obama administration's health care overhaul unconstitutional questioned whether the government was reaching beyond its power by requiring citizens to buy health insurance because everyone needs medical care.
Under that logic, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson said, the government could force Americans to buy clothes or food. Vinson, who sided with 26 states fighting the much-maligned measure, revealed his own health care story during arguments several weeks ago, an example that helped shed light on his ruling Monday.
When Vinson was a law student and his wife gave birth to their first child, he paid a doctor in cash.
"It amounted to about $100 a pound," the 70-year-old jurist joked in December.
Vinson, an ex-Navy pilot appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, is known for maintaining control of his courtroom while letting everyone have their say. He loves camellia flowers and has handled cases from abortion clinic bombings to veterans rights to racial discrimination.
"I think being a former Navy officer, he is used to being in control of things but not being a tyrant," said attorney Bud Day, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War who has tried numerous cases in front of Vinson.
The judge's ruling produced an even split in federal court decisions so far on the health care law, mirroring enduring divisions among the public. Two judges had previously upheld the law, both Democratic appointees. A Republican appointee in Virginia had ruled against it.
The Justice Department quickly announced it would appeal, and administration officials declared that for now the federal government and the states would proceed without interruption to carry out the law. It seemed evident that only the U.S. Supreme Court could deliver a final verdict on Obama's historic expansion of health insurance coverage.
On Capitol Hill, Republican opponents of the law pledged to redouble pressure for a repeal vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate following House action last month. Nearly all of the states that brought suit in Vinson's court have GOP attorneys general or governors.
Vinson ruled against the overhaul on grounds that Congress exceeded its authority by requiring nearly all Americans to carry health insurance, an idea dating back to Republican proposals from the 1990s but is now almost universally rejected by conservatives.
His ruling followed the same general reasoning as one last year from the federal judge in Virginia. But Vinson took it much farther, invalidating provisions that range from Medicare discounts for seniors with high prescription costs to a change that allows adult children up to age 26 to remain on their parents' coverage.
The central issue remains the constitutionality of the law's core requirement that Americans carry health insurance except in cases of financial hardship. Starting in 2014, those who cannot show they are covered by an employer, government program or their own policy will face fines from the IRS.
In one of Vinson's more high-profile trials, he ruled against medical benefits for thousands of military veterans. Day, who has long known the judge, argued the veterans were promised lifetime care by recruiters when they enlisted and that military health benefits shouldn't stop at age 65. The ruling was later overturned by an appeals courts.
Vinson has also served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, which meets in secret in Washington to approve wiretaps and other surveillance requests in terrorism and other national security investigations. He graduated from the Naval Academy and Vanderbilt University Law School, and was a lawyer in private practice. He became a senior judge handling a reduced caseload in 2005 after he turned 65.
Vinson's first major case was the 1985 trial of two young couples – one married, the other engaged – who were accused of bombing and conspiring to bomb three Pensacola-area abortion clinics. Jurors found the men guilty of bomb making, damaging buildings with bombs and conspiring to make bombs and the women guilty of conspiracy. Vinson allowed the four to remain free on bond for a month before he sentenced the men to 10 years in prison and the women to five years probation.
In another notable decision, Vinson ruled a Florida county's ordinance banning the showing of the film "The Last Temptation of Christ" was unconstitutional. He also approved a 1993 settlement against the Shoney's restaurant chain for $134 million in a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by thousands of black employees.
In the health care lawsuit, Vinson ruled that lawmakers lack the power to penalize citizens for not doing something and compared the provision to requiring people to eat healthful food.
"Congress could require that people buy and consume broccoli at regular intervals," he wrote, "Not only because the required purchases will positively impact interstate commerce, but also because people who eat healthier tend to be healthier and are thus more productive and put less of a strain on the health care system."
Defenders of the law said that analogy was flawed. Insurance can't work if people are allowed to opt out until they need medical attention. Premiums collected from many who are healthy pay the cost of care for those who get sick. Since the uninsured can get treated in the emergency room, deciding not to get coverage has consequences for other people who act prudently do buy coverage.
"The judge's decision contradicts decades of Supreme Court precedent that support the considered judgment of the democratically elected branches of government that the act's individual responsibility provision is necessary to prevent billions of dollars of cost-shifting every year by individuals without insurance who cannot pay for the health care they obtain," White House adviser Stephanie Cutter wrote in an Internet posting.
Outside court, Vinson is known for his love of the flowering camellia tree. He is a longtime member of the Pensacola Camellia Club and is a former president of the American Camellia Society.
"It's become a retirement hobby," Vinson told the Pensacola News Journal in 2009. "You retire and decide it's time to do something with all those camellias growing in your yard. Then you drag your wife into it."
He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Alonso-Zaldivar reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Miami and AP writers Erica Werner and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.