WASHINGTON (AP) — Roger Vinson, the federal judge who approved the Obama administration's secret collection of telephone records of millions of Verizon customers in the U.S., made waves two years ago with a sweeping ruling invalidating President Barack Obama's health care law.
The White House called that 2011 ruling a plain case of judicial "overreaching" — the word that critics now are using to describe the collection of records that Vinson ordered.
The administration is calling Vinson's April 25 order on collecting phone records a critical tool to fight security threats.
Vinson, 73, made the ruling as a member of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, about a week before he stepped down from the court at the end of his seven-year term.
The FISA court meets in secret at the federal courthouse in Washington to hear classified evidence from government attorneys, and at least one of its 11 judges is on call to issue orders any time of the day or night. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday that the court order for telephone records was a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice.
Vinson was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and named to the FISA court in 2006 by Chief Justice John Roberts.
In his health care ruling, Vinson said that Congress didn't have the power to require virtually every American to carry health insurance, the law's central feature. He compared it to requiring people to eat healthy 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."
Vinson also wrote: "It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as a 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. If Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain..."
The ex-Navy fighter pilot revealed during oral arguments on the health care law that he paid the doctor in cash when his first child was born. "It amounted to about $100 a pound," he joked.
The health care law that he sought to strike down was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court.
Vinson, who declined an interview request, took senior status in 2005, which allows judges to work at reduced caseloads if they choose.
Among other decisions from the bench, Vinson ruled that a Florida county's ordinance banning the showing of the film "The Last Temptation of Christ" was unconstitutional. He approved a $134 million settlement against the Shoney's restaurant chain in a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by thousands of black employees.
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