The Obama administration scored two big victories today as the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA threw out challenges to the Affordable Care Act. But the two decisions, which included four separate opinions, each noteworthy in their own right, did more than just dismiss legal challenges to the bill. Taken in their entirety, the decisions send a clear message from the appellate court: health care reform is constitutional.
The rulings vacate lower court decisions that had split on the law. That leaves the United States Supreme Court to consider a pair of earlier, conflicting decisions on the merits by the Sixth Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit. Which means all eyes will be on Justice Clarence Thomas, should the court take up the challenge. Justice Thomas’ wife Ginny was instrumental in lobbying against the bill and putting forward the legal challenges to it.
One of the cases before the Fourth Circuit was the challenge filed by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) who had challenged the constitutionality of the individual mandate on the grounds that it conflicted with Virginia law. That law, the Virginia Health Care Freedom Act was passed the day after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law and declares that no Virginia resident “shall be required to obtain or maintain a policy of individual insurance coverage.”
In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, the panel concluded that Cuccinelli did not have standing to sue because the case relied on a state law intended to undermine a federal act — a constitutional impossibility thanks to the supremacy clause.
Judge Motz opinion minced no words when explaining that states cant grant themselves standing to challenge federal laws simply by passing legislation that declares those laws invalid. “If we were to adopt Virginia’s standing theory,” Judge Motz wrote, “each state could become a roving constitutional watchdog of sorts.” In one fell swoop the appellate court obliterated a key constitutional principle of the Tea Party, nullification. Serious legal scholars were not surprised.
The other case involved a challenge brought by the evangelical Liberty University that also challenged the individual mandate. In that case Judge Motz wrote that Liberty could not challenge the individual mandate before it took effect because doing so would, in effect, usurp the government’s taxing power.
The dismissal of the appeal on the tax question prevented the panel from fully considering the constitutionality of the individual mandate. But that didn’t stop the judges from weighing in. Judge Andre Davis dissented with the majority from the conclusion that Liberty did not have standing, wrote that the mandate clearly falls under Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce while Justice James A. Wynn Jr. would have upheld the act based on Congress’s taxing authority.
The veracity of the opinions shows just how little regard the constitutional theories of the Tea Party hold with those serious about constitutional jurisprudence. Unfortunately they also show that those who are bent on undoing any accomplishment by President Obama will stop at nothing to do so, including launching spurious legal challenges.
Photo from steakpinball via flickr.