Virginia Appeals Court Dismiss Health Care Challenges

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A federal appeals court in  Virginia today dismissed two cases challenging the Obama administration’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

In one case a unanimous three judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Commonwealth of Virginia did not have the legal right  or “standing” to bring the case challenging the constitutionality of the health care reform law.

Virginia had argued it could challenge the individual mandate–a key provision of the law that requires individuals to buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a tax penalty– because the provision interfered with a state law already on the books that says residents cannot be forced to buy health insurance.

But the court said today “To permit a state to litigate whenever it enacts a statute declaring its opposition to federal law” would “convert the federal judiciary into a forum for the vindication of a state’s generalized grievances about the conduct of government.”

At oral arguments a lawyer for the Obama administration had argued that the case “fails at the outset” because the mandate is applicable to individuals and not the state.

After the release of the decision , Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli expressed “disappointment” that the case was thrown out on the standing issue.

In a statement he said, “the Court did not even reach the merits on the key question of Virginia’s lawsuit–whether Congress has a power never before recognized  in American history: the power to force one citizen to purchase a good or service from another citizen.”

In the second case brought by Liberty University ,  a private christian school, the court said it had to block the case because a federal tax law stripped it of jurisdiction to decide the issue.

In a 2-1 ruling the Court became the first court to rule that the individual mandate functions as a tax. Because  the mandate will not be  enforced until 2014, the Court said that the Anti-Injunction Act “strips us of jurisdiction” from hearing a pre-enforcement challenge.

“What the Court said is that the penalty for not complying with the mandate functions as a tax that cannot be challenged until it has been assessed. ” says Kevin Walsh law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.”

Mathew Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, said that the Court was wrong to apply the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA) to the case.

“Every court which has considered this question has found that the mandate is a ‘penalty,” not a tax, ” he said in a statement “and the AIA does not apply. Even the federal government defendants argued that the AIA does not apply and that the statutory intent clearly indicated that the AIA was inapplicable.”

But supporters of the law praised the ruling. “The procedural obstacles that the plaintiffs tried to hurdle in bringing these cases in the first place show their challenges to be far more about politics than constitutional law” said Elizabeth Wydra Chief Counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center.

The Department of Justice released a statement welcoming the dismissal of the two challenges. “We also continued to appreciate the rulings of other courts on the merits upholding the constitutionality of the Act.”

Today’s ruling does not change the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States is likely to take up the issue because two  other appeals courts across the country have reached the merits of the case and split on whether the core provision of the  law is constitutional.

Read about other challenges to the health reform law.

The panel in Virginia consisted of  Judge Diana Gribbon Motz who was nominated to the bench by President Bill Clinton, Judge Andre M. Davis and Judge James A. Wynn Jr.. Wynn and Davis were both appointed by President Barack Obama. The judges were chosen by a random computer model.  Motz wrote the majority opinions in both cases.