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Fourth Circuit Doesn’t Rule on Obamacare’s Constitutionality



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The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said today that Virginia has no standing to challenge Obamacare’s individual mandate. In a second ruling issued at the same time, the Richmond court also said that Liberty University can’t challenge the law before the mandate goes into effect in 2014.

The latest rulings focused only on judicial procedure and not on the merits of the law, leaving a split decision between the Sixth and Eleventh circuits on the actual constitutionality of the individual mandate. (The Sixth Circuit in Michigan said the individual mandate can stand because it is important to the overall working of the law. The Eleventh Circuit — in which 26 states are challenging the law – disagreed and said the individual mandate is not only unconstitutional but “is breathtaking in its expansive scope.”)

In today’s ruling, the Fourth Circuit appeals court did not address the question of the constitutionality of the individual mandate: “Because we hold that Virginia lacks standing, we cannot reach the question of whether the Constitution authorizes Congress to enact the individual mandate,” the judges wrote. There was no dissenting opinion.

This is not a victory for the Obama administration. But neither does it help those opposed to the law.

In the barrage of cases against the unpopular health-overhaul law, the Eleventh Circuit decision in mid-August on the 26-state challenge from Florida was the most significant court ruling to date, with the panel saying the mandate is unconstitutional — a defeat for the Obama administration. The White House is weighing whether to request an en banc decision by all of the Eleventh Circuit judges in an effort to delay a U.S. Supreme Court hearing in the coming term.

Rather than basing their challenge on a state statute, as Virginia did, the 26 states base their argument on the individual mandate’s unconstitutionality as an unprecedented expansion of the federal government’s authority under the Commerce Clause.

In today’s ruling, the Fourth Circuit judges threw out the elegantly decided ruling in the Virginia case delivered last year by U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson, who decided that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce by compelling people “to involuntarily engage in a private commercial transaction.” Judge Hudson did not strike down the whole law but determined that the individual mandate and associated provisions could be declared unconstitutional – severing the “problematic portions while leaving the remainder intact.”

The Fourth Circuit did not address the merits, writing: “Article III of the Constitution confers on federal courts the power to resolve only ‘cases’ and ‘controversies.’ Specifically, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) it has ‘suffered an injury in fact’; (2) there exists a ‘causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of’; and (3) a favorable judicial ruling will ‘likely’ redress that injury.”

The court wrote: “Only if Virginia meets the burden of establishing standing does the Constitution permit a federal court to address the merits of the arguments presented. . . . Standing here turns on whether Virginia has suffered the necessary ‘injury in fact.’”

The court found that it did not, concluding “the individual mandate does not directly burden Virginia” and that it “does not threaten Virginia’s sovereign territory.”

Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli had argued that his state has standing solely because the federal health law conflicts with a state law protecting its citizens from Obamacare’s individual mandate, litigating on behalf of the rights of its citizens. The court disagreed: “When a state brings a suit seeking to protect individuals from a federal statute, it usurps this sovereign prerogative of the federal government and threatens the ‘general supremacy of federal law.’”

It continued: “Given this fact, the [Virginia statue] merely declares, without legal effect, that the federal government cannot apply insurance mandates to Virginia’s citizens. This non-binding declaration does not create any genuine conflict with the individual mandate, and thus creates no sovereign interest capable of producing injury-in-fact. . . . Given this fact, Virginia lacks the ‘personal stake’ in this case essential to ‘assure that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues.’”

The battles now move one step closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.



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