Earlier this week, the legal challenge to last year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act moved one step closer to the Supreme Court. A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for two lawsuits against the landmark health care reform bill — one brought by the State of Virginia and the other by Liberty University, a small religious-affiliated school located in Lynchburg, Virginia.
At the heart of Virginia’s challenge to the law is the Federal requirement that by 2014 all individuals have health insurance or pay a fee. Under the plan, those who cannot afford coverage will receive subsidies to purchase it or will be covered by Medicaid. Supporters of the law argue that Congress has the authority to impose such mandates under the constitutional provision allowing it to regulate interstate commerce. Opponents counter that refusing to buy insurance is a noneconomic inactivity and does not constitute commerce.
The Liberty University lawsuit also challenges the individual mandates, as well as what it sees as public funding of abortions in the law and regulations placed on the school as a health care provider to its employees.
So far there, have been 31 challenges to the health care reform law filed in Federal district court, with around 24 having been decided. Although most of the time the law has been upheld, a Federal district judge in Virginia struck down the mandate portion of the law in the case brought by the State of Virginia. In Florida, a district court judge ruled the entire law unconstitutional because he held that the mandate provision could not be separated from the rest of the legislation.
Currently, four Circuit Courts — the intermediate step between Federal district courts and the U.S. Supreme Court — have scheduled arguments to consider the lower court decisions, with the Fourth Circuit being the first to act. The Sixth Circuit (June 1), the 11th Circuit (June 8), and the Third Circuit (June 23) are the other three. Appeals are currently pending in the Eighth, Ninth, and District of Columbia circuits.
So far, the partisan ties of the presiding judges has been an important factor in how the challenges have been resolved, with Democratic-appointed judges generally upholding the law while the two Republican-appointed judges in Virginia and Florida struck it down. If this trend holds true at the circuit level, it could be good news for supporters of the law, as all three Fourth Circuit judges who were randomly chosen by computer to hear the Virginia cases were appointed by Democrats — one by President Bill Clinton and two by President Barack Obama.
During oral arguments, the judges appeared to be skeptical of the State of Virginia’s standing to bring suit challenging the law and generally were sympathetic to the U.S. government’s arguments. In a reflection of the importance the Obama Administration has put on defending the law in appellate court, it had acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who normally only appears before the Supreme Court, travel to Richmond, Va., to argue the case.
Supreme Court Debates will be closely monitoring the challenges to the health care reform law as the progress through the U.S. legal system and will be providing extensive coverage of the case when it almost certainly is granted review by the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly as early as this fall.