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Appeals Court Throws Out Health Reform Challenge

President Obama delivers a speech on his health care plan for the nation on March 8, 2010 at Arcadia University in Glenside, near Philadelphia, Pa. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

In one of the biggest victories for President Obama’s health care reform overhaul, a federal appeals court dismissed two high-profile cases questioning the law’s constitutionality.

The one-two punch from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Liberty University have no legal right to sue over the reform law’s demand that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine.

The appellate court was the first to throw out the case based upon standing rather than the constitutionality of the law.

The three-judge panel — two appointed to the bench by President Obama, one by President Clinton — rejected Cuccinelli’s argument that the mandate interferes with a state law protecting Virginians from being forced into buying health insurance. The court said the mandate “imposes no obligations” on the state itself and that an attorney general has no legal standing to sue on behalf of the individual citizens who will be affected.

The court ruled that both cases be sent back to the district level and rejected.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Andre Davis said he wished the 4th Circuit would have considered the merits of the law itself rather than simply dismissing the cases on technical grounds. Two of the judges — Davis and James Wynn — noted that they would have ruled that the government is within its rights to implement the mandate.

In a White House blog post Thursday afternoon, deputy senior advisor to the president Stephanie Cutter called the decision “another victory for the Affordable Care Act and the tens of millions of Americans” already impacted by the law.

“In the weeks ahead, the legal process regarding the Affordable Care Act will continue. When it ends, we are confident we will prevail,” she wrote.

The decision is the third ruling by a federal appeals court, with the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit finding the individual mandate unconstitutional and Cincinnati’s 6th Circuit deeming it legally sound.

Neera Tanden, chief operating officer of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and a former architect of the law in the Obama administration, said the decision marks a tipping point in favor of the overhaul.

“Today’s decisions demonstrate that the sway of the appellate courts has been in favor of the law,” she told the NewsHour. “You now have a clear majority of judges at the judicial appellate level finding in favor of the law.”

Cuccinelli released a statement almost immediately after the decision was handed down, pledging to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

“Our disappointment not only stems from the fact that the court ruled against us, but also that the court did not even reach the merits on the key question of Virginia’s lawsuit — whether Congress has a power never before recognized in American history: the power to force one citizen to purchase a good or service from another citizen,” Cuccinelli said.

The “highly technical nature” of the ruling could weaken the impact of the decision, said Northwestern Law professor Stephen Presser said in a statement.

“The court did note that important constitutional issues were involved, and even the Court conceded that those issues should be resolved in an appropriate forum,” he said. “This is a further indication that the United States Supreme Court should soon resolve this issue, now that both the District Courts and the Court of Appeals have issued contradictory decisions both on the standing and substantive issues.”

So where does that leave the health care battle? Below, NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal offers her analysis:

Virginia and Liberty University could ask the full appellate court to review the panel’s decisions, or they could ask the Supreme Court to do it.

The Supreme Court presently has pending an appeal by the Thomas More Law Center which lost its constitutional challenge to the health care act before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The Obama Administration must file a response by Sept. 23. The government could urge the justices to deny review or it could agree that the justices should take the case to resolve the constitutional issues; it also could ask the Court to hold the petition or seek more time to respond to the Thomas More Law Center’s petition. But the Court will not act until it hears from the government.

A decision striking down the individual mandate was issued recently by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in a suit brought by 26 state attorneys general. The attorneys general, who did not prevail on all of their claims, and the Obama Administration have until Nov. 10 to file a petition with the Supreme Court, but that date could change if either side asks the full 11th Circuit court to hear an appeal.

Keep an eye on the Thomas More Law Center’s petition in the Supreme Court and that Sept. 23 deadline. The government’s response will provide some idea of its strategy going forward in these legal challenges. Seven federal appellate court judges, as of now, have considered the constitutionality of the health care act; five have said it is constitutional.

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