The Fourth Circuit’s dismissal of Virginia’s challenge to the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act rests on a straightforward understanding of the limited power of federal courts to resolve questions of constitutional law. Federal courts do not resolve abstract disputes or issue advisory opinions; they resolve only cases or controversies. And there was no case or controversy between Virginia and the federal government regarding the enforceability of the individual mandate.
In their responses to the ruling, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli have painted the decision as a blow to federalism, with a federal court showing disrespect to state legislation.
“ To dismiss a Virginia statute as a basis for standing, declaring it to be ‘quintessentially political,’ and asserting that a state cannot be a ‘constitutional watchdog’ undermines our precious principles of federalism.”
“Not only does the court’s opinion reject the role of the states envisioned by the Constitution, it dismisses an act of the Virginia General Assembly—the Health Care Freedom Act—as a mere pretense or pretext. It is unfortunate that the court would be so dismissive of a piece of legislation that passed both houses of a divided legislature by overwhelming margins with broad, bipartisan support.”
These responses miss the mark. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that Virginia did not identify “any plausible, much less imminent, enforcement of the [Virginia Health Care Freedom Act] that might conflict with the individual mandate.” The court properly concluded that to use such a law as a basis for asking a federal court to opine on the validity of a provision of federal law that is unenforceable against the state “would convert the federal judiciary into a ‘forum’ for the vindication of a state’s ‘generalized grievances about the conduct of government.’”