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US appeals court rejects two cases dealing with health law

Virginia rulings find plaintiffs lacked standing

By Kevin Sack
New York Times / September 9, 2011

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NEW YORK - A federal appellate court in Richmond, Va., yesterday threw out a pair of cases dealing with the constitutionality of President Obama’s 2010 health care law, ruling for varying reasons that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to sue.

In the process, however, two of the three judges on the panel volunteered that they would have upheld the law, known as the Affordable Care Act, if they had been able to rule on the substance of the cases.

The rulings, by the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals, vacated lower court decisions - one for and one against the law. That leaves the Supreme Court to consider a pair of earlier, contradictory decisions by other appellate courts.

In late June, a three-judge panel of the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled 2-1 in favor of the law’s requirement that, starting in 2014, most Americans must obtain health insurance. Then in August, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled against that provision, known as the individual mandate, also by 2-1.

Still, other cases continue to progress through the appellate process, with the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia scheduled to hear its case later this month.

The Supreme Court has yet to signal whether it will accept one or more of the cases, or when.

The Fourth Circuit panel was considered by lawyers to be the least likely to strike down the health care act. All three randomly selected judges on the panel were appointed by Democratic presidents, including two by Obama himself.

At the lower district court level, rulings in the many challenges to the law had broken down along seemingly partisan lines, with Democratic appointees universally backing the law and Republican appointees rejecting it.

The Fourth Circuit confronted two opposing lower-court decisions. One, in a case filed by Virginia’s attorney general, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, had overturned the law’s insurance requirement. The other, in a case filed by Liberty University, a Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., upheld the same provision, which is considered central to the workings of the act.

In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, the Fourth Circuit panel concluded that Cuccinelli did not have standing to sue because Virginia’s case relied on a state law intended to undermine the federal act. Unlike the Liberty case, which included individual plaintiffs who might someday be directly affected by the mandate, Cuccinelli structured his complaint as a conflict between state and federal law.

The Virginia Health Care Freedom Act, enacted one day after Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, declares that no Virginia resident “shall be required to obtain or maintain a policy of individual insurance coverage.’’ Other states where leaders oppose the law have passed similar measures.

But Motz wrote in strong terms that states cannot grant themselves standing to challenge federal laws simply by passing legislation that declares those laws invalid. A state, she wrote, does not “acquire some special stake in the relationship between its citizens and the federal government merely by memorializing its litigation position in a statute.’’

Otherwise, she added, Virginia could enact a statute declaring, for example, that no resident shall be required to pay Social Security taxes. “If we were to adopt Virginia’s standing theory,’’ Motz wrote, “each state could become a roving constitutional watchdog of sorts.’’