Suthers said Monday he would join fellow Republican attorneys general in at least nine other states in opposing the bill because he thinks a provision requiring most Americans to purchase insurance is an unconstitutional expansion of federal power. Congress has the right to control interstate commerce but can't force people to participate in commerce, he said.
"Never before has Congress compelled Americans, under the threat of economic sanction, to purchase a particular product or service as a condition of living in this country," Suthers said.
Republican state lawmakers had called on him earlier in the day to join the lawsuit. But Suthers, the only Republican elected to statewide office, said he reached his decision on his own and said it wasn't politically motivated.
Melissa Hart, associate professor at the University of Colorado and director of the Byron White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law, disagreed with Suthers' interpretation.
"I think it's a very radical interpretation of the 10th Amendment," Hart said. "I think it will fail and I think it's very political."
Hart says the language in the 10th Amendment is very open-ended and could mean a lot of different things, but added that Suthers' interpretation was "very aggressive."
"The federal government here is saying, 'We're actually going to mandate that that commercial affect isn't the right one,'" Hart said. "'You will be penalized just as you can be penalized in the tax system. You will be penalized if you don't instead make the more responsible commercial choice, which is to get health insurance upfront, so that we can control what some of that spending is and not having it passed off through a visit to the emergency room that we all pay for because you didn't want to buy health insurance.'"
Democratic legislative leaders also disagreed with Suthers.
Senate Majority Leader John Morse said it was based on the "ideology of the extreme right wing" rather than on compassion for the estimated 800,000 uninsured Coloradans. House Speaker Terrance Carroll called it "Republican obstructionist politics."
"It's really a political argument looking for legal justification," Carroll said.
Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer said the governor believes Congress has the right to pass such legislation, which he said would provide insurance to 300,000 in the state. Recent state legislation, including a fee on hospitals passed last year, has already provided care to 200,000 residents, Dreyer said.
Republican lawmakers, however, said the mandate to buy health insurance was an invasion of people's privacy and that the state can't afford the bill's significant expansion of Medicaid, the joint federal-state health plan for the poor. Colorado's Medicaid benefits are relatively low compared to many states, and lawmakers have had to slash payments to Medicaid providers to help balance the budget during the recession.
House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, said the bill marks a major shift in how the federal government prods the states and citizens to move the way it wants. While the federal government has held out funding and tax credits to get results in the past, the federal government will now be able to punish people who don't buy health insurance by fining them, he said.
"We've moved beyond enticement to holding a hammer over your head," May said.
Some Republican lawmakers are also supporting a proposed ballot measure that would seek to block the legislation in Colorado. It would add the right to choose health care to the list of rights outlined in Colorado's constitution and would bar the state from enforcing the federal legislation.
Independence Institute president Jon Caldara said the ballot measure would set up a fight between state's rights and federal power that would have to be settled in court.
Opponents have until Wednesday to file a legal challenge. After that, Caldara plans to start gathering the 76,047 signatures needed to get it on the ballot. He has until July 12.
(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with The Associated Press)