Virginia AG’s Lawsuit to Scuttle Landmark Health Care Law Dealt Setback

September 8, 2011

by Jeremy Leaming

A federal appeals court earlier today rejected two legal challenges, on procedural grounds, to the Obama administration’s landmark health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act.

On the day President Obama signed the measure into law, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, supported by an array of right-wing groups, lodged a lawsuit arguing that the law’s individual responsibility provision, which requires individuals, starting in 2014, to maintain health care insurance coverage, amounted to an unconstitutional use of congressional power.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today tossed aside Cuccinelli’s law suit, saying the state lacked standing to bring the complaint.

“Standing here turns on whether Virginia has suffered the necessary ‘injury in fact,’” wrote Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz for the panel in Virginia v. Sebelius. “To satisfy that requirement, Virginia must demonstrate that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act ‘inva[des]’ its ‘legally protected interest,’ in a manner that is both ‘concrete and particularized’ and ‘actual and imminent.’”

In this case, Cuccinelli argued that the individual responsibility provision of the ACA conflicts with the “Virginia Health Care Freedom Act,” hindering the state’s “sovereign power.”

But Judge Motz concluded that the ACA’s individual responsibility provision “threatens no interest in the ‘enforceability’” of the Virginia health care law.

“Contrary to Virginia’s arguments, the mere existence of a state law like the VHCFA does not license a state to mount a judicial challenge to any federal statute with which the state law assertedly conflicts,” Motz wrote. “Rather, only when a federal law interferes with a state’s exercise of its sovereign ‘power to create and enforce a legal code’ does it inflict on the state the requisite injury-in-fact.”  

Here, Virginia’s health care law, Motz, wrote “regulates nothing and provides for the administration of no state program. Instead, it simply purports to immunize Virginia citizens from federal law. In doing so, the VHCFA reflects no exercise of ‘sovereign power,’ for Virginia lacks the sovereign authority to nullify federal law.”

Motz said Virginia’s real interest was not in enforcing a state law, but rather in exempting Virginians from a federal law.  

The Fourth Circuit also rejected, on procedural grounds, a lawsuit brought by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University arguing that several provisions of the ACA are unconstitutional. Judge Andre Davis lodged a dissent, however, arguing that the court should have ruled on the constitutionality of the ACA.

Judge Davis, citing Supreme Court precedent, said Congress did not run afoul of its constitutional authority to regulate commerce.

Davis wrote, “the Supreme Court has taught that an enactment is authorized by the Commerce Clause where Congress could rationally conclude that the object of regulation substantially affects interest commerce. Indeed, it has long been recognized that ‘[t]he power of Congress over interstate commerce is plenary and complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations other than are prescribed in the Constitution. The Necessary and Proper Clause makes clear that we are to defer to Congress with respect to the means it employs to effectuate legitimate ends. In combination with the Commerce Clause, it empowers Congress ‘to take all measures necessary and proper to’ the effective regulation of interstate market.”

Davis concluded, “But even if it were appropriate to review the method of regulation Congress has chosen to employ, I would find that the individual mandate fits well within the range of acceptable regulations.”

The opinion in Liberty University v. Geithner is available here.

Other federal appeals courts circuits have weighed in on the constitutionality of the ACA, with the Sixth Circuit upholding the law, and the Eleventh Circuit striking it down. As TPM notes, legal experts “don’t expect the matter to be fully settled until the Supreme Court weighs in.”    

For more information on litigation over the health care law see the ACS Affordable Act Resource Page.