National Press Club

State AGs Coakley, Cuccinelli lay out opposing cases in Supreme Court health warmup

February 9, 2012 | By Bob Weiner | weinerpublic@comcast.net

Attorneys General Ken Cuccinelli (VA) and Martha Coakley (MA) debate the constitutionality of federal healthcare, February 9, 2012.

Attorneys General Ken Cuccinelli (VA) and Martha Coakley (MA) debate the constitutionality of federal healthcare, February 9, 2012.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

In a vigorous NPC Newsmaker debate Thursday on the Affordable Health Care Act’s constitutionality, Republican Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli said the health bill’s mandate “crushes liberty.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, countered that “We don’t leave people at the ER door unless we change the slogan to ‘Live Free and Die.’”

The debate was a preamble to the Supreme Court’s upcoming March consideration of the Affordable Health Care Act case.

Coakley, who spoke first, said the Massachusetts health law spearheaded by then Gov. Mitt Romney is a “prototype” of the federal law. She pointed out that Romney in 2006 stated that the bill was “not only constitutional, but good public policy.” She said 98 percent of Massachusetts residents now have health care access, 15 percent higher than the national average, and that the state law reduces spending and emergency room care costs by more than 30 percent.

Cuccinelli said, “The federal government cannot compel you into commerce or to buy a product.” He said that “if you are ordered to buy health care, you can be ordered to buy a car or a gym membership.” He contended that the “mandate requires a radical, dramatic expansion of the Commerce Clause.”

During questions, Coakley pointed out that auto insurance is required, and precedent allows congressional action on health care. Cuccinelli responded that the difference between state and national requirements is significant.

Cuccinelli stated that he expected a 5-4 ruling but “the lineup of justices may not be as predictable as you would think.” Both attorneys general were asked if “the politics of the court” rather than merits of the policy would drive the decision. While Cuccinelli conceded “it should not surprise anyone that judges and justices tend to be closer to the world view of the presidents that appoint them,'' both Coakley and Cuccinelli agreed that in a close case this significant, the justices would rule on the merits.

(Richard Mann and Jaime Ravenet assisted in writing this article.)