Regardless of what one thinks about the constitutionality of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, there appears to be an emerging bipartisan consensus that (1) its constitutionality should be resolved by the Supreme Court, and (2) the Supreme Court should act sooner rather than later (i.e., by the end of the October 2011 Term rather than in some later term). For example, the news coverage here in Virginia after yesterday’s rulings dismissing Virginia’s challenge and dismissing Liberty University’s challenge included statements urging Supreme Court review by both Republican Governor Bob McDonnell and Democrat Senator Mark Warner (relevant statements quoted below if you don’t want to click through).
In light of yesterday’s rulings, however, there is a real possibility that the Supreme Court could conclude that it lacks jurisdiction to rule on any of the challenges to the individual mandate. Challenges by the states have been dogged by questions about jurisdiction from the outset. The Fourth Circuit’s answer to some of those questions knocked out Virginia’s case. The 26-state mandate challenge in Florida v. HHS has so far dodged jurisdictional bullets because of the presence in that case of private parties, whose standing to challenge the mandate has generally been accepted by the federal courts. But yesterday’s Fourth Circuit ruling in Liberty University v. Geithner has breathed new life into a private-plaintiff jurisdictional problem that the parties to the mandate challenges had left for dead. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit held that the Tax Anti-Injunction Act prohibited individuals subject to the mandate from bringing a pre-enforcement challenge because such a suit was one to restrain the assessment or collection of a tax.
If there is a jurisdictional problem preventing both the private plaintiffs (who are subject to the individual mandate) and the State plaintiffs (who are not subject to the individual mandate) from having a federal court hear their constitutional challenges, then the Supreme Court cannot get to the merits of the mandate challenges any time soon.
One response may be to hope that the Supreme Court reads the Tax Anti-Injunction Act differently from the Fourth Circuit. That response may rest on wishful thinking. I need to study the relevant precedents more closely than I have previously, but Judge Motz’s opinion strikes me as persuasive. (See also the amicus brief filed by two former Commissioners of the IRS, Mortimer Caplin and Sheldon Cohen.)
In any event, there is no need to take a chance and rest the possibility of a mandate-challenge merits decision on speculation about how the Supreme Court will resolve the legal uncertainty about application of the Tax Anti-Injunction Act. The Act sets forth a statutory limitation that Congress can and should change to allow a pre-enforcement challenge to the individual mandate. Importantly, it appears that Congress can make this change effective immediately and can make clear that the change preserves jurisdiction over private-party challenges to the individual mandate that have already been filed. See Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557, 576 (2006) (“We have in the past ‘applied intervening statutes conferring or ousting jurisdiction, whether or not jurisdiction lay when the underlying conduct occurred or when the suit was filed.'”), quoting Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 274 (1994); see also Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 274 (1994) (“[I]n Andrus v. Charlestone Stone Products Co., 436 U.S. 604, 607-608, n. 6 (1978), we held that, because a statute passed while the case was pending on appeal had eliminated the amount in controversy requirement for federal question cases, the fact that respondent had failed to allege $10,000 in controversy at the commencement of the action was ‘now of no moment.'”). (My assessment of the legal soundness of a “retroactive” jurisdictional cure is based on just a little bit of digging around thus far, and I have not yet vetted the assessment with others, but the foregoing authorities appear to support it. Critical commentary is, of course, welcome on this or any other aspect of the post.)
In sum: The constitutional merits of the challenges to the individual mandate have divided largely (though not cleanly) along party lines, but there appears to be bipartisan agreement that the merits should be decided soon. A legislative fix to the Tax Anti-Injunction Act can eliminate a jurisdictional barrier that presents a serious possibility of causing extensive delay. Congress can and should get rid of that barrier and clear the way to prompt Supreme Court resolution of the constitutional challenges to the individual mandate.
Statement by Gov. McDonnell (R-VA) on the need for prompt Supreme Court review of the constitutionality of the individual mandate:
“As federal courts across the country continue to come to differing conclusions on the merits of cases arguing the unconstitutionality of the federal health care law, today’s decision further exemplifies why these cases should be expedited to the nation’s highest court. It is the Supreme Court that will ultimately determine whether the federal mandate on every citizen to purchase health insurance violates the U.S. Constitution. States and businesses continue to expend time and money and languish in uncertainty as they try to come into compliance with a law that may ultimately be ruled unconstitutional. It is exasperating that the President and the Justice Department oppose a prompt resolution of this case through an expedited appeal. America needs finality in this case.”
Statement by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) on the desirability of prompt Supreme Court review of the constitutionality of the individual mandate:
“This is going to end up getting decided by the Supreme Court and candidly, I hope, the sooner the better. I do believe there are a lot of parts of the health care reform law that make sense. I think there are some parts that need to be corrected.”
[Note: The Warner quotation comes directly from the linked video. The accompanying text misquotes Sen. Warner.]