A Time to Sue
It is no secret that I believe Congress has no constitutional authority to mandate that citizens purchase a product they do not want. But people who are eager to see this portion of the federal health care reform law struck down would be very wise to put the brakes on the current wave of litigation.
You see, it is a bedrock principle of American law that federal courts cannot offer “advisory opinions.” In order for a federal court to resolve a legal issue, the person or organization presenting that issue to the court must demonstrate that they have suffered, are suffering, or are in immediate danger of suffering some injury. If the complainant can’t show how they are being harmed, the court rules that there is no current “case or controversy” existing between the parties and the case gets thrown out.
In the weeks since Congress adopted the new health care reform law, state officials all over the country have been trumpeting their intent to challenge the law’s constitutionality. Attorneys general, governors, and lieutenant governors in 15 (or more) states have already joined or have pledged to join federal lawsuits intended to strike down the individual health insurance mandate. But there are two big, big problems.
First, the individual mandate is not scheduled to go into effect until 2014. In other words, no one will be required to comply with the mandate for another four years. And, until someone is bound by this requirement, it will be virtually impossible to persuade a court that anyone has been sufficiently harmed by this law to create the “case or controversy” necessary for the court to address the merits of the claim. The second problem is that federal courts do not generally allow one person to assert a claim based on injury suffered by someone else (although there are a few limited exceptions to this rule). Although these state officials could file lawsuits on their own behalves, if they did not have compliant health insurance policies, it is much tougher for them to suggest persuasively that these officials have any basis for asserting the rights of individual citizens, independent of any private citizen asserting a claim against the federal law. The state officials’ claims might have a bit more substance in states that have passed a statute or constitutional amendment limiting governmental authority to interfere with citizens’ decisions regarding health insurance, but it is still a tenuous legal position unless the state is intervening on behalf of a private citizen’s lawsuit.
So, in all likelihood, these impassioned crusades to knock down the health insurance mandate will prove to be utterly worthless until the targeted provision actually takes effect. And, in the meantime, those in support of the mandate will point to the failure of these lawsuits as proof of both the mandate’s constitutionality and the general wrongheadedness of those who oppose the mandate. My advice to these well-intentioned officials is to withdraw their lawsuits for the time being, and for the next four years focus instead on addressing the mandate through the legislative process. If the mandate remains in place after the elections of 2010 and 2012 pass by, then will be the appropriate time to take this issue to the courts.