Health Care Reform on Judicial Fast Track

The wheels of justice, as the cliché goes, grinds slowly. Given the complexity of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act this poses a bit of a problem. Federal District Court judges are reaching contrarian conclusions concerning the constitutionality of the PPACA. Everyone knows the validity of the health care reform law will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, should states continue to implement the law or hold off on complying? The sooner the Supreme Court weighs in the sooner federal and state regulators (let alone carriers, employers, brokers, and consumers) will know what’s what.

Remember the law suit filed by 26 states (and the National Federation of Independent Businesses) in Florida? That’s the one in which U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson decided that the PPACA’s requirement that individuals obtain health care coverage or pay a penalty/tax/fine/whatever was unconstitutional. In making his decision Judge Vinson stated the law’s violation of the Commerce Clause made the entire Act unconstitutional, but he declined to issue an injunction to stop implementation of the health care reform law. Some states used the the Judge’s ruling to stop work on implementing the law; others did not.

This is the suit likely to move things to the Supreme Court the fastest. Because in an attempt to bring some clarity to the situation, the Justice Department asked Judge Vinson to clarify whether he intended to halt the law – at least in the 26 states party to the suit. They got their answer from Judge Vinson in a response that, when you weed out the criticism of the Justice Department, comes down to yes, he did mean to halt implementation of the law, but he would stay his ruling (which means he’d delay making it effective) so long as the federal government appealed his decision on an expedited basis.

The Department complied and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has put a hearing of Judge Vinson’s decision on a fast track. For a case of this magnitude, the Court set a short timetable. Lawyers for the Obama Administration must file its first briefs by April 4th. The states will have until May 4th to make their case. Federal attorneys will have until May 18th to respond to the states’ filing.

Usually appeals of this nature are heard by a panel of three Circuit Court judges. The losing party may then appeal the case to the all the judges in the Circuit (referred to as an “en banc” hearing). Some of the states involved in the suit have are seeking to skip the panel and have all 10 judges in the Circuit consider the case. This approach would more quickly get the case to the Supreme Court. In any event, oral arguments before the 11th Circuit will likely occur this summer. Given the importance of their decision, a decision by the Court could take a few months.

This is not the only case moving through the system concerning the constitutionality of the PPACA. And even with this expedited timetable the odds are the Supreme Court will announce its decision in the midst of the 2012 elections. Which means there’s plenty of time for Congress to modify the law, for other suits to address non-Commerce Clause issues, and for health care reform to dominate the presidential campaign and the fight for Congress. Which means the Supreme Court’s decision will not be the end of America’s health care reform process, regardless of what they rule it will only be the start of the next round of America’s health care reform process.