Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What Does the Ruling Against the Health Care Mandate Actually Accomplish?

A federal district judge in Virginia recently issued an order declaring unconstitutional that portion of Obama's health care plan that required individuals to purchase health insurance. This decision is unsurprisingly controversial, and has already been the subject of much commentary.

What I don't see anyone mentioning is the fact that the judge's ruling applies only to the specific plaintiff -- the Commonwealth of Virginia -- not to anyone else nationwide. Indeed, it's not clear to me that the judge's ruling would apply to any of the private citizens of Virginia.

Why do I say this?

First, the district court did not issue an injunction here that would purport to prevent the federal government from enforcing the statute elsewhere.

Second, it seems very questionable to me whether the district court would have had the power to issue such an injunction in the first place. As the Ninth Circuit has noted in a case involving the INS, district courts are not supposed to issue injunctions that protect non-plaintiffs, absent a class action:
We must vacate and remand, however, because the scope of the injunction is too broad. On remand, the injunction must be limited to apply only to the individual plaintiffs unless the district judge certifies a class of plaintiffs. National Center for Immigrants Rights, Inc. v. INS, 743 F.2d 1365, 1371 (9th Cir.1984). A federal court may issue an injunction if it has personal jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter jurisdiction over the claim; it may not attempt to determine the rights of persons not before the court. . . . The district court must, therefore, tailor the injunction to affect only those persons over which it has power.
In another case, the Ninth Circuit similarly held:
In addition to rescinding Meinhold's discharge, the district court permanently enjoined DOD from "discharging, changing [the] enlistment status of or denying enlistment to any person," from maintaining files, and from "taking any actions" against gay or lesbian servicemembers based on sexual orientation in the absence of sexual conduct which interferes with the military's mission. The Navy argues that even if the district court did not err on the constitutional issue, its nation-wide injunction cannot stand. We agree.

An injunction "should be no more burdensome to the defendant than necessary to provide complete relief to the plaintiffs." Califano v. Yamasaki, 442 U.S. 682, 702, 99 S.Ct. 2545, 2558, 61 L.Ed.2d 176 (1979); see also Bresgal v. Brock, 843 F.2d 1163, 1170-71 (9th Cir.1987). This is not a class action, and Meinhold sought only to have his discharge voided and to be reinstated. Effective relief can be obtained by directing the Navy not to apply its regulation to Meinhold . . . .
Third, federal district judges do not have the power to issue binding precedential orders, even within their own district. As the Third Circuit has noted:
First, it is clear that there is no such thing as "the law of the district." Even where the facts of a prior district court case are, for all practical purposes, the same as those presented to a different district court in the same district, the prior "resolution of those claims does not bar reconsideration by this Court of similar contentions. The doctrine of stare decisis does not compel one district court judge to follow the decision of another."
Given this lack of precedential power, it would be startling if a federal district judge could nonetheless issue an order preventing the federal government from enforcing a federal law as to anyone in the entire country. Put it this way: if a private citizen had filed a lawsuit against the federal government in the same district court (the Eastern District of Virginia), there could be another ruling tomorrow that went the opposite way: upholding the individual mandate. Whatever federal district judge happens to be the first to issue a ruling shouldn't have the effective power to make all future rulings by other courts a nullity.


Blogger Paul Jaminet said...

Hi Stuart,

What you say is so basic to legal principles that it's almost surprising that it needs to be said.

I guess judicial over-reaching has become so common that people forget that the role of judges is to decide cases, not create law!

1:14 PM  
Blogger Michael Ejercito said...

A similar thing happened recently within the Texas gay divorce case.

To summarize, the Texas Third Circuit ruled that Texas had no standing to appeal a divorce decree granted to a same sex couple married in a foreign jurisdiction. If affirmed, or an appeal is refused, then this only means that the same sex couple before the Texas family court wins by default. Other same sex couples married in foreign jurisdictions must initiate their own litigation if they want a divorce in Texas family court.

(A similar issue might arise in the California marriage case if the appeal is dismissed for lack of standing. The court order could be limited to the specific litigants, meaning that the defendant county clerks are not required to issue marriage licenses to non-litigants, and non-litigant county clerks are not required to issue marriage licenses to the plaintiffs.)

And every federal appellate court "has a special obligation to satisfy itself not only of its own jurisdiction, but also that of the lower courts in a cause under review, even though the parties are prepared to concede it", as the Supreme Court reiterated in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona.

I am no fan of ObamaCare, and yet even if some of its provisions are unconstitutional, trial courts are bound to adhere to jurisdictional limits.

1:32 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home