Two Big Victories For Health Care Reform


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.

Related Stories:

Bachmann’s Constitutional Contortions

11th Circuit Rules Health Care Mandate Unconstitutional

Photo from steakpinball via flickr.


William C
William C3 months ago


W. C
W. C3 months ago

Thank you.

Stephen B.
Past Member 6 years ago

Sorry, got cut off:

This matter is not addressed in the document guiding the creation of law as it still assumes that the "new" authority does not exist.

The legal question is whether the text of the constitution is supreme, or the precedent of everybody's favorite president. The only real solutions that I see are a set of constitutional amendments so large that a full-blown Constitutional Convention may be the only practical method, or to repeal much of federal law and authority (as the Tea Party desires).

Stephen B.
Past Member 6 years ago

The use of the Supremacy Clause is interesting. The clause (Article 6, Paragraph 2, U.S. Constitution) refers specifically to "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof", requiring that laws be in pursuance of the constitution to hold supremacy. Laws permitted, but not required, by the constitution then would not.

That, however, was the constitution as originally written, not as practiced since Lincoln won the war. Since the state-governments were (illegally) denied the right to have their states secede (though I have no problem at all with the end of slavery itself), it was established that they are empowered by the federal government, not the other way around. The idea that the federal government was empowered by the states to perform the duties listed in its constitution is central to both nullification (denial of that empowerment) and the Tea Party's position that the federal government is forbidden from doing anything not explicitly required of it by the constitution (as opposed to only forbidden from doing things explicitly forbidden by it).

Originally, it was assumed that all federal laws would be pursuant to the constitution and thus empowered by the states rather than made on the authority of the federal government itself. This issue regarding the Supremacy Clause, then, is whether laws made without an explicit demand by the constitution hold the same authority as those with one. This matter is not addressed i

Patsy W.
Patsy Webb6 years ago

I wish this health care problems would just work themselves out, I have no health insurance at all, and so many more people are with none, or some that nobody accepts anyways...

Joan E.
Joan E6 years ago

Cynthia is right -- Grandma doesn't have to buy insurance because she is on Medicare. But under the Paul Ryan budget, which the Republicans in the House passed (but the Democratic controlled Senate fortunately did not) sick old Grandma WOULD have to try to buy private health insurance, even though she's got a lot of serious health problems and not a lot of money. Instead of having Medicare, under the Ryan Republican plan, she'd have a coupon -- much like the ones she'd be using to save a little on the catfood she'd have to buy to stave off starvation.

Janet K.
Janet K6 years ago

I want to see a single payer system where all Americans are covered.

Kathy Parsons
Kathy Parsons6 years ago

That's right, it's just a beginning, but it's like they say 'from little acorns...' and all that...

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle6 years ago

I'm glad, but this is just a beginning. As an R.N., I am totally for Medicare for All. Health care should NEVER have been a money-making business -- it's goals and bottom-line do not mesh for care and profit. So onward towards the great undertaking. FIRST, take back the House!

Shirley Marsh
Shirley Marsh6 years ago

Any country or society is only as strong as its weakest link. A country that delivers a first class free education and health care system for all its citizens (free only from the point of view that it is paid for in your taxes) will have far fewer weak links than countries that cater only to the rich and powerful.

Our brilliant minds come from all walks of life, not just from the 'silver spoon' set; to ignore this fact is to maybe deny ourselves future geniuses in every field. And every human being is entitled to the best in health care possible. Or do we really believe only the rich are deserving of basic human rights? I guess where we place our votes answers that question.