It is a striking feature of Virginia v. Sebelius that Judge Hudson’s decision holding the individual mandate unconstitutional had no legal effect on anybody subject to the individual mandate.
The general rule (with exceptions not relevant here) is that a judgment binds only the parties. See, e.g., Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 893 (2008). That binding effect does not amount to much in a case like Virginia v. Sebelius because the sole party challenging the individual mandate is a party against whom it could not be enforced.
Nor would the district court’s judgment in Virginia v. Sebelius have any binding effect in a later case. A private individual in a later suit could not wield the decision against the federal government through the doctrine of nonmutual offensive issue preclusion, because that doctrine cannot be used against the federal government. See United States v. Mendoza, 464 U.S. 154, 162-63 (1984). Moreover, the district court’s decision set no precedent binding in later cases, because “federal district judges, sitting as sole adjudicators, lack authority to render precedential decisions binding other judges, even members of the same court.” Am. Elec. Power Co., Inc. v. Conn., ___ S.Ct. ___, 564 U.S. ___ (2011).
When a judgment about the constitutionality of a provision of federal law has no binding legal effect on anybody subject to that provision of federal law, that is a good sign that something has gone amiss. The federal judiciary sits to resolve cases, not to decide abstract questions of constitutional validity. To amount to a “case of actual controversy” under the Declaratory Judgment Act and under Article III, a lawsuit must “‘admi[t] of specific relief through a decree of a conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts.'” MedImmune , Inc. v. Genentech, Inc., 549 U.S. 118, 127 (2007), quoting Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 240-41 (1937). Virginia v. Sebelius fails this test, as the judgment’s absence of any binding effect on anybody subject to the individual mandate reveals.
The one remedy that could have an effect on Virginia residents subject to the individual mandate would be an injunction prohibiting the federal government from enforcing the mandate against Virginia residents. Were Virginia to seek such an injunction, Virginia would be acting to protect its citizens from the operation of federal law. That is, Virginia would be acting in a parens patriae capacity. The problem with seeking this remedy, however, is that the binding Supreme Court precedent of Massachusetts v. Mellon prohibits states from suing the federal government in a parens patriae capacity–as Virginia has conceded.
It is black-letter law that “a plaintiff must demonstrate standing separately for each form of relief sought.” DaimlerChrysler v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 352 (2006). The parties in Virginia v. Sebelius vigorously contest whether Virginia’s asserted injury to its sovereignty is judicially cognizable. Even if it is, however, the injury is not redressable. Given the unavailability of the one remedy that could actually prevent the federal government from enforcing the individual mandate in Virginia, Virginia cannot show how a judgment in its favor would redress the claimed injury to its sovereignty. Because the district court judgment sets no precedent and cannot be used to prohibit the federal government from enforcing the individual mandate against Virginia residents who wish to wield it against the federal government using non-mutual offensive issue preclusion, Virginia could win (as it did in the district court) and the asserted injury to its sovereignty would remain unremedied.