4th Circuit rejects challenges to health care law

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said earlier this year that the Affordable Care Act is perfectly constitutional, rejecting conservative arguments out of hand. More recently, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion. Would the 4th Circuit break the tie? Well, sort of.

A federal appeals court today dismissed one of the highest-profile challenges to President Obama’s healthcare reform law.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli does not have a legal right to sue over the law’s requirement that most people buy insurance. The court vacated a lower court’s ruling in the case and instructed the lower court to dismiss the suit.

The Affordable Care Act actually faced two separate legal challenges in Virginia, one from Cuccinelli, the comically far-right state A.G., and another from lawyers at Liberty University, founded by the late radical televangelist, Jerry Falwell. At the district level, Cuccinelli’s initial challenge won; Liberty’s didn’t.

Today, the 4th Circuit said the plaintiffs lacked standing — that is, they lacked the legal ability to bring the case in the first place — and rejected both cases. The ruling was not unanimous, though, with one of the three appeals court judges saying the 4th Circuit should have considered the cases on the merits and ruled in the Affordable Care Act’s favor.

Everyone watching the debate appears to agree that these rulings are all just a dress rehearsal for the U.S. Supreme Court, which will likely hear arguments this fall before ruling next summer. That said, Ian Millhiser raises an interesting point: “Today’s decisions are the first court of appeals decisions to dismiss a case for want of jurisdiction after a lower court reached the merits — potentially raising the possibility that one or more of the justices could agree with them and prevent this constitutional question from being decided on the merits until after 2014.”

Something to keep an eye on.