Assessing Legal Prospects for Lawsuit Over Federal Health Care Reform
Yesterday morning, Missouri’s lieutenant governor filed suit against the recently passed federal health care reform. It’s difficult to know exactly what to make of certain aspects of this lawsuit, because it assumes the manner in which the federal health care law will function and it is not clear that the lawsuit’s assumptions are correct. Even if they are correct, however, there are a few issues that may prevent this lawsuit from proceeding. The first is the question of standing. Before a court will consider and rule on a legal issue, plaintiffs must establish that there is a current case or controversy between themselves and any defendants. Where the government is the defendant, this usually means that the government must have taken some act that has caused a harm or detriment to the person filing the lawsuit. It is not usually sufficient simply for a law to be on the books; courts usually (although not always) require that there must have been some implementation of the law before they will address its validity. Also, it is important to remember that plaintiffs cannot generally bring claims on behalf of others.
This lawsuit has eight counts. Several of these assert rights properly belonging to the state of Missouri. The lieutenant governor suggests that because a state statute gives his office the responsibility to be an advocate for the state’s elderly citizens, he has authority to seek relief on behalf of the state government. Similarly, the lawsuit claims that the citizen plaintiffs, as taxpayers, have a right to raise these claims on behalf of the state government. It is possible that courts have previously found citizen taxpayers to have standing to sue on behalf of their state government, but I cannot think of any examples and I do think it unlikely. Thus, I don’t think a court is likely to agree to consider counts one, three, and four. And, even if the court did address them, I question the viability of several of the lawsuit’s assertions in these counts. It may be correct that the federal government has no proper authority to require the state government to adopt certain programs (count one), no authority to compel the state government to make a payment to the federal Department of the Treasury (count three), and no authority to force the state government to increase state taxes in violation of the Missouri Constitution (count four) but it is not particularly clear that the federal health care law would actually do any of these things. As I have pointed out, the lawsuit assumes that the law will be implemented in a particular way, but we cannot be sure that its assumptions are accurate. This has an enormous bearing on the validity of these claims.
Count two deals with the compensation provided to state officials, so it is at least arguable that the lieutenant governor could have standing to assert the claims of that count. The substance of the claim, however, is dubious. It seems highly unlikely that the federal government is not permitted to impose certain limitations on how the state of Missouri is permitted to compensate its employees. For example, would the state argue that it is not required to pay minimum wage or to comply with anti-discrimination laws? The principles of state sovereignty expressed in count two are, I believe, well made, but they do not necessarily demand a conclusion that the targeted provision of the federal health care law is unconstitutional.
Counts five and six address the individual insurance mandate, which does not even go into effect until 2014. I think the legal arguments in these counts are well-founded, but the claims are premature and will continue to be so until the mandate is actually implemented.
Count seven may actually have some legs. It addresses the provision of special treatment for citizens of certain states, which was incorporated into the health care law in order to secure the votes of certain congressional representatives. The count points out that these exemptions, or “grandfather” provisions, require that the law be applied differently to similarly situated citizens based on nothing other than their geography. That’s a powerful claim, assuming that the law will be implemented in the way that the lawsuit envisions. Those aspects of the statute go into force on Jan. 1, 2011, so it’s possible that the court will be willing to address them.
Count eight attacks the infamous “panels” that are expected to be established to evaluate the appropriate levels of treatment for various health care situations. The lawsuit assumes that these panels will have the power to forbid doctors to provide services to citizens willing to pay for them. If that assumption is correct, this count may have life if and when the panels are ever constituted and actually issue the anticipated prohibitions. I do not, however, think that a court is likely to assess this claim until those things have taken place.
So, taken as a whole, I think it likely that the court will ultimately dismiss at least half of the claims raised in this lawsuit (and probably three quarters of them) as lacking either standing or ripeness. It is possible that the court will address the merits of counts two and seven. It is difficult to predict how the court will come out on count two, although I think it unlikely that the court will find a constitutional violation. If, however, the federal statute implements the provision targeted by count seven in the manner that the lawsuit anticipates, I think there is a very strong chance that it will be struck down as unconstitutional.