Tag: Liberty University

Fourth Circuit’s Liberty Ruling Deals a Hidden Blow to Obamacare

Obamacare had a rough day in court yesterday. In Liberty University v. Lew, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled against Liberty University’s challenge to various aspects of the law. One might think, as SCOTUSblog reported, this was a victory for the Obama administration. 

In the process, however, the Fourth Circuit undercut three arguments the administration hopes will derail two lawsuits that pose an even greater threat to Obamacare’s survival, Pruitt v. Sebelius and Halbig v. Sebelius

The plaintiffs in both Pruitt and Halbig claim, correctly, that Obamacare forbids the administration to issue the law’s “premium assistance tax credits” in the 34 states that have refused to establish a health insurance “exchange.” The Pruitt and Halbig plaintiffs further claim that the administration’s plans to issue those tax credits in those 34 states anyway, contrary to the statute, injures them in a number of ways. One of those injuries is that the illegal tax credits would subject the employer-plaintiffs to penalties under Obamacare’s employer mandate, from which they should be exempt. (The event that triggers penalties against an employer is when one of its workers receives a tax credit. If there are no tax credits, there can be no penalties. Therefore, under the statute, when those 34 states opted not to establish exchanges, they effectively exempted their employers from those penalties.)

The Obama administration has moved to dismiss Pruitt and Halbig on a number of grounds. First, it argues that those penalties are a tax, and the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA) prevents taxpayers from challenging the imposition of a tax before it is assessed. Second, the administration argues that the injuries claimed by the employer-plaintiffs are too speculative to establish standing. Third, shortly after announcing it would effectively repeal the employer penalties until 2015, the administration wrote the Liberty, Pruitt, and Halbig courts to argue that the delay should (at the very least) delay the courts’ consideration of those cases. In Liberty, the Fourth Circuit rejected all of those claims.

In discussing whether the “assessible payment” that the employer mandate imposes on non-compliant employers falls under the AIA, the court writes:

Yes, Says Virginia, There Are Limits on Federal Power

Today, the Fourth Circuit became the first appellate court in the nation to enter the Obamacare fray.  It heard two very similar cases back-to-back, Liberty University’s, in which the government won in the district court, and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s, in which Judge Henry Hudson struck down the individual mandate back in December.  Going into the hearing, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s legal team had done a wonderful job setting out the reasons why Hudson was correct and why Congress went too far in asserting the unprecedented power to compel people to enter into contracts with private insurance companies.  I was proud to sign Cato’s brief supporting that position and continue to maintain that the federal government cannot require people to buy goods or services under the guise of regulating interstate commerce.  Moreover, the individual mandate is the linchpin of the overall legislative scheme (as everyone concedes), so if it falls, the rest of the law—at least its central provisions—must fall with it.

Indeed, the Fourth Circuit judges—a Clinton appointee and two Obama appointees, in a random selection unfortunate to the challengers—struggled with the idea that Congress could regulate “inactivity.”  The government—which has now determined that the challenges are so serious as to send the solicitor general to argue in lower courts—claimed that Congress can do anything it wants relating to anything that in any way affects a national market such as that for health care.  Given that decisions not to buy insurance, or to self-insure, or not to pay for health care until presented with a bill, clearly have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, the argument went, Congress can require people to buy health insurance.  The judges seemed to agree to a certain extent but were still troubled by the textual truism that a power to “regulate” implies an active object or activity that is being regulated.  And indeed, if a “decision” not to buy something or the state of not having acquired something is all that is required to invoke congressional jurisdiction, then the Constitution’s enumerations of federal power mean absolutely nothing.

The government is understandably unconcerned with articulating a principled limit on its own power, and this particular panel of judges may find some way to avoid dealing with the activity/inactivity conundrum, but one can only hope that the Supreme Court ultimately rejects the claim that Congress can grant itself unlimited power simply by legislating in an area of great national concern.

Starting at 2pm Eastern, you can stream the oral arguments from the Court’s website here.