Obamacare Legal News Gone Wild

Developments in the Obamacare lawsuits are coming at us so quickly that it’s hard to keep up.  After a month and a half of speculation on what the administration would do after it lost in the 26-state/NFIB lawsuit (Florida v. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services), in the last week the D.C. Circuit heard argument in yet another case on appeal, the government decided not to seek en banc review in the Eleventh Circuit, yesterday we went from zero to three cert. petitions in that case, and the government filed a reply in the Thomas More (Sixth Circuit) case.  Here’s a breakdown:

1. D.C. Circuit Argument

This past Friday, the D.C. Circuit heard the appeal of Seven-Sky v. Holder (in which Cato filed this brief).  There wasn’t much media coverage, in part because the reporting came in on a Friday afternoon but more because the appellate developments after the Eleventh Circuit created a split from the earlier pro-government Sixth Circuit ruling are somewhat anticlimactic – because the action has moved to the Supreme Court.  I attended the hearing and can report a few key points:

(a) The government still has not managed to come up with an example of something it cannot do under its reading of the Commerce Clause.  This is shocking.  Solicitor General Verrilli (who did not argue here), a word of unsolicited advice before Justice Scalia asks you the same question: come up with a couple of outlandish things and move on.  Unless, you know, you think the government really can do anything it wants if a congressional majority exists for it.

(b) Judge Bret Kavanaugh, Bush II appointee and rising star in the conservative judicial establishment, had some serious concerns regarding the Anti-Injunction Act (the jurisdictional issue on which the Fourth Circuit based its decision to dismiss the Liberty University case).  Beth Brinkmann, arguing for the government and after floundering on the Commerce Clause (see above), seemed to have done a great job in putting Kavanaugh’s mind at ease – or at least getting him over the jurisdictional hump.

(c) Judge Laurence Silberman, Reagan appointee and author of many significant opinions over the years, has a really wide interpretation of government power under Wickard v. Filburn, the 1942 wheat-farming case.  I’m not sure that puts his vote in danger – he was also the one who most went after the government – but it does raise an eyebrow.

(d) Overall, I cautiously predict a 2-1 ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, but we won’t know till later this fall.  For a more detailed analysis of the hearing, see Randy Barnett’s post at the Volokh Conspiracy.

2. No En Banc Review in the Eleventh Circuit

On Monday, the government allowed the deadline for seeking review of the Eleventh Circuit panel ruling by the full court to slip.  Commentators, including myself, had speculated that it might file for en banc review in an attempt to push the inevitable Supreme Court ruling past the 2012 election.  That didn’t happen, and here was my press statement:

En banc rehearing would have been legally futile and politically damaging, so the government made the correct decision in not seeking it. We can now expect the solicitor general to ask the Supreme Court to review the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to strike down the individual mandate while leaving the rest of Obamacare standing. The certainty that such review will provide to a nation battered by this among so many other pieces of economically harmful administration policies cannot come soon enough.

The government’s inactivity here, as it were, provoked a flurry of coverage.  I agree with the analysis that Peter Suderman put up at Reason

3. NFIB Files Cert. Petition

Early yesterday (Wednesday) morning, the National Federation of Independent Business and two individuals asked the Supreme Court to review the one issue on which they lost before the Eleventh Circuit: severability.  That is, despite the government’s concession that at least the community-rating and guaranteed-issue provisions are inextricably tied to the individual mandate, and the obvious practical observation that none of the legislation would’ve passed without the mandate, the Eeleventh Circuit reversed Judge Vinson’s ruling on this point and only struck down the mandate.  The petition also makes the point that the Eleventh Circuit case presents the best Supreme Court “vehicle” among all the lawsuits because it most cleanly presents the relevant issues and doesn’t face lingering concerns over standing.   It’s a strong and aggressively worded brief which makes for a good read.  Here was my press statement:

The NFIB’s cert petition forces the Supreme Court to grapple not simply with the individual mandate’s constitutional defects but with the fatal flaws those defects expose in the overall legislation. The regulatory burden and economic uncertainty – let alone direct financial cost – that Obamacare imposes on individuals, businesses, states, and the nation as a whole are part and parcel of a noxious scheme centered on the individual mandate. The Court should grant this petition and thus begin putting an end to the government’s doomed – and unconstitutional – attempt to control our lives.

Randy Barnett, who’s now part of the NFIB legal team (which is led by veteran appellate litigator Mike Carvin), has this useful post about the petition’s treatment of the Anti-Injunction Act.

4. 26 States File Cert. Petition

On the heels of the NFIB filing, the 26 states in the Florida-led lawsuit filed their own cert. petition yesterday.  “Time is of the essence,” lead counsel (and former solicitor general) Paul Clement argues. “States need to know whether they must adapt their policies to deal with the brave new world ushered in by the ACA.”  The petition asks the Court to review three questions:

(a) Does the threat to withhold all Medicaid funding if states don’t agree to Obamacare’s onerous new conditions on that program constitute impermissible coercion by the federal government? [The Eleventh Circuit said no.]

(b) May Congress treat states no differently from any other employer when imposing invasive mandates as to the manner in which they provide their own employees with insurance coverage?  [This is a new formulation of a claim that hasn’t gotten much attention, and focuses on the somewhat idiosyncratic 1985 Supreme Court decision in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority.]

(c) Does the individual mandate exceed federal power and, if so, can it be severed from the rest of the law?

I’ve only skimmed this petition, but it too is a hard-hitting and elegant presentation of serious issues.

5. Solicitor General Files Cert. Petition

Around lunchtime yesterday, the government filed its own cert. petition.  (The parties were all clearly playing a high-stakes game of legal chicken; once the govenment declined to pursue en banc review, the NFIB incorporated that fact into a petition that it had clearly been considering filing preemptively, its co-plaintiff states soon followed, and the government’s hand was forced to throw its petition – which had obviously also been in the final stages – into the filing cascade. Note that yesterday was not any sort of deadline for seeking Supreme Court review!) 

The new solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, of course asks the Court to address whether the individual mandate is constitutional, but also, curiously, whether the challenges are barred by the Anti-Injunction Act.  On this second point, the government argues that the AIA does not apply but asks the Court to appoint an amicus to argue that it does, effectively to defend the Fourth Circuit’s position.  This is unusual.  The SG is essentially saying that he would prefer to win on the merits but will accept a technical victory so long as he doesn’t have to argue for it.  (This accords with my prediction that the Court will either rule for the plaintiffs or find a procedural way of avoiding the merits while allowing the individual mandate to stand.)

6. Government Responds to Thomas More’s Cert. Petition

There was one actual deadline yesterday, and the government met it: It filed a response (not labeled “opposition” as is typically the case) to the cert petition in Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, the case coming out of the Sixth Circuit.  As expected given its earlier filing, the government asked the Court to hold this petition pending resolution of Florida v. HHS.  There’s really nothing to this filing beyond expressing that position.

Conclusion

The day we’ve all been awaiting since President Obama signed his health care law in March 2010 – the Supreme Court’s ruling – is nigh.  Normally the parties on the other side of cert. petitions have 30 days to respond, after which the Court considers the filings, issues a cert. grant or denial (here a grant of some kind), and sets the case for argument a few months in the future to allow time for briefing on the merits.  In Florida v. HHS, however, all the parties – the government, the states, the NFIB/individual plaintiffs – are requesting cert., so I’m not sure what value they or the Court would get from responsive filings (which would be due Oct.27).  Regardless of that wrinkle, the Court is likely to grant cert. sometime in November – or in any case by the end of the year – and set argument for March or April. 

So we’re on track for a decision that glorious last week of June when the Court releases its most pressing opinions and gets the heck out of Dodge.