Reform law spurs court clash
Federal appeals judges grill Va. ACA opponents
Opponents of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act received a tough grilling from three federal appeals judges appointed by Democratic presidents. During oral arguments in two lawsuits challenging the law last week in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., the randomly chosen panel of judges asked why opponents are fixating so strongly on the idea that Congress cannot regulate economic “inactivity” when that concept is not in the Constitution and has never before been specifically applied in a similar case.
The answer, attorney and opponent of the law Mathew Staver told the judges, is that Congress had essentially never been so audacious. “This health insurance law redistributes wealth among private parties to promote an ideal that is humanitarian in nature,” Staver said. “However, the act goes far beyond the outer limits of the Constitution by seeking to regulate, for the first time in history, noneconomic activity.”
In one lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, two Virginians—Michele Waddell and Joanne Merrill—said Congress had no right to interfere with their personal decisions to pay for their healthcare out of pocket instead of buying insurance. The law will force nearly all Americans to buy insurance or pay an income tax penalty by 2014.
Waddell and Merrill’s decisions left them “outside the stream of commerce,” and thus outside Congress’ ability to regulate their inactivity in the health insurance marketplace, said Staver, the lead attorney in that case ( Liberty v. Geithner) for Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college in Lynchburg, Va.
Acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal argued that Waddell and Merrill’s decisions were in fact part of an overall pattern of profound economic activity. Congress, in its findings supporting the healthcare law, said that in 2008 Americans who received care without having insurance shifted $43 billion in costs to those with means to pay.
“What we’re saying here is, Congress is regulating activity,” Katyal said. “The activity is participation in healthcare markets. That is a virtually universal feature of human existence.”
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz asked whether Congress, in trying to force citizens to behave responsibly in healthcare, was opening itself up to the argument that it was becoming a “government Big Brother” that could also force citizens to, for example, eat broccoli or forgo trans fat.