The Fourth Circuit yesterday rejected constitutional and other challenges to various changes made to the Black Lung Benefits Act by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care (“PPACA” or “Affordable Care Act” or “ACA” or “Obamacare” and so on). Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion in West Virginia CWP Fund v. Stacy, which was joined in by Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Wynn.
The principal constitutional challenges were substantive due process and Takings Clause claims regarding a statutory provision that extended certain benefits to claims that were filed after January 1, 2005 and pending on or after the date of the ACA’s enactment (March 23, 2010). The challengers sought to distinguish Usery v. Turner Elkhorn Mining Co., 428 U.S. 1 (1976), in which the Supreme Court rejected a due process challenge to the Black Lung Benefits Act. The challengers sought to analogize their challenge to Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel, 524 U.S. 498 (1998), in which five Justices voted to hold unconstitutional a certain retroactive imposition of liability in the coal industry. The five Justices in the Eastern Enterprises majority did not agree on a theory of unconstitutionality. Four found a violation of the Takings Clause, while one (Justice Kennedy) found a substantive due process violation. (The remaining four found no constitutional flaw.)
Judge Wilkinson’s opinion applies Usery v. Turner Elkhorn Mining, distinguishes Eastern Enterprises, and in the course of doing so, also reiterates the Fourth Circuit’s view that the rejection of a Takings Clause theory by five Justices–on the ground that a simple obligation to pay does not amount to a taking–”is more authoritative than the plurality’s conclusion” that the imposition of such an obligation could amount to a taking.
The opinion contains two interesting passages regarding the Affordable Care Act more generally. First, Judge Wilkinson concludes in a footnote that the BLBA amendments in the ACA would survive as severable even if the Supreme Court were to hold the individual mandate unconstitutional (as it has been asked to do). Second, Judge Wilkinson resoundingly rejects, because it threatens the separation of powers, the challengers’ argument that the BLBA amendments only passed due to their inclusion in massive and unwieldy ACA:
[P]etitioner’s argument that the BLBA amendments only passed due to their “inclusion . . . in approximately 2,700 pages of healthcare legislation,” Petitioner’s Reply Br. at 27-28, threatens the separation of powers by inviting courts to scrutinize the process by which a coordinate branch of government goes about its business. Likewise, it invites every loser in a legislative fight to contest not only the constitutionality of Congress’s final product, but the way that Congress went about enacting it. Such a plunge into the depths of Capitol Hill should be undertaken—if at all—only in the most extraordinary of circumstances, circumstances that are plainly not presented here. In sum, the difficulties with petitioner’s view are evident and legion.