Last week saw more legal activity around challenges to the Affordable Care Act, with a hearing in Richmond, Virginia before three appeals judges on the constitutionality of the individual mandate.
In a statistical surprise, the three judges drawn randomly from the Fourth Circuit Court’s panel of fourteen judges equally divided between Democratic and Republican nominees were all from the former group.
The judges heard arguments appealing two lower courts’ contradictory decisions in Virginia. In Richmond, the federal district court had found that the individual mandate was unconstitutional. In Lynchburg, the federal district court had upheld the individual mandate as falling within “well settled principles” set by the Supreme Court.
The three Democratic nominees fired questions at the opposing lawyers for more than two hours, but with rather more skepticism being shown to the arguments of the ACA opponents. The key issues for the judges were whether, in the Richmond case, Virginia’s attorney general had legal standing to challenge the federal ACA, and, in both cases, how to define the choice not to buy health insurance: as commercial activity that the Supreme Court has ruled can be regulated, or as inactivity that is beyond Congress’s reach.
Two additional cases will be heard by federal appeals courts in the next three weeks. On June 1 in Cincinnati, the Sixth Circuit Court will hear arguments in the appeal of a ruling upholding the law. On June 8, in Atlanta, the Eleventh Circuit will hear the Obama administration’s appeal of a Florida judge’s ruling that the entire act was unconstitutional.
Although it’s generally assumed that the constitutionality issues will lead eventually to a decision by the Supreme Court, the timing and path to the Court remain uncertain. The Court might take any one or more of the various cases, depending also on the preferences of opposing lawyers and on the decision by the Fourth Circuit as to Virginia’s legal standing to challenge the law. It is also possible that one or more of the cases being heard by the three-judge appeals panels could be referred to the respective full fourteen-judge circuit panel. In general, though, it appears that both sides are interested in moving fairly expeditiously towards the Supreme Court. However, there may be some attempts to finesse the timing to fit the schedule of the 2012 presidential election. The best guess: a Supreme Court hearing this fall with a decision in the first quarter of 2012.