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Federal appeals court hears arguments in health care reform challenge

A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] on Tuesday heard oral arguments [court schedule, PDF] on the constitutionality of the health care reform law [HR 3590 text; JURIST news archive] in two cases challenging the law. Commonwealth of Virginia v. Sebelius [complaint, PDF; materials] was filed by the state's attorney general Kenneth Cuccinelli [official website] in March 2010 and challenges the law on the basis that Congress' use of the Commerce Clause [text] to compel citizens of Virginia to purchase health insurance is an extension of its power and breach of federalism principles. A judge for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] in December that the minimum coverage provision of the law is unconstitutional and that an individual's decision to purchase health insurance is beyond the reach of Congress and outside the purview of the Commerce, Necessary and Proper, General Welfare and Taxation powers enumerated in the US Constitution. Liberty University v. Geithner [complaint; PDF; materials] also challenged the statute as a violation of the Commerce Clause. A judge for the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia [official website] dismissed the suit [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] in November finding that the individual mandate was within Congressional authority and that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim. During the arguments, lawyers for Liberty University [academic website] maintained that the individual mandate was regulating an inactivity, which is beyond Congress' powers under the Commerce Clause, stating that, "commerce has never been extended to regulate simply idleness" and that choosing to avoid an economic transaction is not commerce. Liberty University also rejected the contention that the law falls within Congress's authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause [text]. A lawyer for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] argued that Congress made specific findings regarding individual financial decisions regarding health care and that lack of participation in the health insurance market does not equate lack of participation in the health care market. The DOJ stated that active participation in the health care market is "a virtually universal feature of human existence" regardless of the intent to use health care. The DOJ also argued that Virginia lacks standing to challenge the individual mandate because the state can not show how they are harmed by the provision, and that the state's role as parens patriae is not valid in this situation. The DOJ argued that such a role would interject the states into "abstract political disputes" that are "best handled outside federal courtrooms." Lawyers for Virginia countered the DOJ argument regarding the state's standing stating that because the federal government is one of enumerated powers there must be a forum to address the limits of those powers and that "if the federal courts are not the forum, then there's no forum."

In April, the US Supreme Court [official website] denied [JURIST report] Virginia's request for the court to rule on the constitutionality of the health care reform law on an expedited basis. The writ was filed [JURIST report] in February by Cuccinelli, who sought to have the high court depart from its traditional procedure and instead review the constitutionality of the law before the Fourth Circuit ruled on the issue. Additional challenges to the law continue to proceed through the lower courts. In April, a judge for the US District Court for the District of New Jersey [official website] rejected [JURIST report] a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. Judge Freda Wolfson dismissed the lawsuit, brought without an attorney by two New Jersey residents, on jurisdictional grounds, ruling the two men had no standing [Cornell LII backgrounder] to challenge the law. In a similar ruling earlier in April, a judge for the US District Court for the District of New Hampshire [official website] dismissed a lawsuit [JURIST report] also challenging the law's constitutionality and held that the plaintiff, 80-year-old Harold Peterson, lacked standing because his Medicare coverage automatically satisfied the law's insurance mandate. A judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida [official website] struck down the law in January, while in October, a judge in Michigan upheld the law [JURIST report]. US Courts of Appeal for the Third, Sixth and Eleventh circuits are all currently scheduled to hear oral arguments in appeals of lower court rulings, while appeals are pending in the DC circuit as well as the Eighth and Ninth circuits.

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