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Supreme Court says no to expedited hearing on health-care reform law

Virginia’s attorney general had asked the Supreme Court to bypass the usual appeals process by allowing his state's challenge to the Obama health-care reform law to proceed directly to the high court.

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This January 24 file photo shows a US flag held by a marcher in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

Tim Sloan/AFP Photo/Getty Images/Newscom

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The US Supreme Court declined on Monday to immediately take up Virginia’s challenge to the constitutionality of the new health-care reform law.

Virginia’s Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli had asked the court to bypass the usual appeals process by allowing the case to proceed directly from a district-court ruling to the nation’s highest court.

The justices, without comment, refused the request.

The action means that Virginia’s challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will next be heard by a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. Oral argument in that case is scheduled to take place in two weeks, on May 10.

The Fourth Circuit will take up a second challenge to the health-care reform law on that same day.

In opposing Mr. Cuccinelli’s beeline to the high court, Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal argued in his brief that several constitutional challenges to the health-care law were already being considered in the appeals courts on an expedited basis – including Cuccinelli’s case.

“Given the court of appeals’ imminent consideration of this case, there is no basis for short-circuiting the normal course of appellate review,” Mr. Katyal wrote.

To date, federal district judges have issued five decisions on the constitutionality of the health-care law’s individual mandate – the requirement that each citizen must purchase a government-approved level of health insurance or pay a penalty.

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Three judges have ruled that Congress acted within its power to regulate interstate commerce when it enacted the measure. Two judges – including the judge in Cuccinelli’s case – ruled that the individual mandate exceeds congressional power because it seeks to regulate not just economic activity (the purchase of health insurance) but also economic inactivity (a citizen’s failure to purchase health insurance).

In addition to the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, appeals are pending at the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, and the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

Oral argument in the Eleventh Circuit case has been set for June 8. That case involves a constitutional challenge filed by attorneys general from Florida and 25 other states.

Depending on how quickly the appeals courts announce their decisions, one or more of these cases could be appealed to the Supreme Court as early as next term.

In a statement Monday, Cuccinelli said he was disappointed but not surprised by the Supreme Court's action. The high court, he said, rarely hears cases on direct appeal from a district court.

“We asked the United States Supreme Court for expedited review of our lawsuit because Virginia and other states are already spending huge sums to implement their portions of the health care act, businesses are already making decisions about whether to cut or keep employee health plans, and citizens are in limbo until the Supreme Court rules,” Cuccinelli said.

“Asking the court to expedite our lawsuit was about removing this crippling and costly uncertainty as quickly as possible,” he added.

Cuccinelli had asked the Supreme Court to consolidate all the cases currently on appeal into a single case for decision by the high court.

He had argued that the health-care reform law “has roiled America.” For the first time in US history, he said, a clear majority of states are in litigation against the national government over claims that Congress has overstepped its authority.

Some states are gearing up for full implementation of the new health-care law, while others are moving slowly and cautiously with an eye on the potential outcome in the courts.

“Because the changes effected by [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] are so massive, the states are forced to devote considerable resources now to meet the requirements of a congressional enactment that this court may find invalid,” the Virginia brief said.

The individual-mandate portion of the health-care law, Katyal noted, does not take effect until 2014. “There will be ample time before 2014 for this court to decide whether to grant review in the normal course and, if it does so, to issue a decision,” he wrote.

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