The first decision by the Fourth Circuit provided only a small—and anticipated—win for the Administration, although it was an embarrassment for one of the most outspoken foes of the ACA, Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. The Court rejected Virginia’s case on the grounds of lack of standing, stating that the ACA imposed no specific obligation on the Commonwealth itself, shooting down Cuccinelli’s argument that a Virginia statute protected its citizens against the ACA’s individual mandate clause.
In the second decision, the Court ruled that Liberty University’s case against the ACA had come too soon, and that it could not be brought until the law was in effect. This somewhat unexpected ruling reflected the Court’s interpretation of the individual mandate’s penalties as taxes, which under federal law cannot be legally challenged until they are in force.
The Fourth Circuit panel was the first group of three judges appointed solely by Democratic presidents to hear cases on the ACA’s constitutionality. It also was the first to characterize the mandate penalties as taxes, an interpretation that Administration lawyers have argued, and that would fit Congress’s authority under the Constitution.
Aside from the tax interpretation issue, today’s rulings don’t mean very much for ACA supporters or opponents. Neither ruling examined the merits of the ACA, and with opposing decisions from two other appeals court panels, the constitutionality argument is almost certainly going to the Supreme Court. The major question is when; the Administration may be able to delay a high court decision by appealing the prior Eleventh Circuit appeals panel ruling to the full court of sixteen judges, but this could result in another ruling against the ACA, and still leave the Supreme Court to rule before the 2012 election..