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Judge Roger Vinson’s error-filled opinion was one of the biggest news stories this week, at times even overshadowing the revolution underway in Egypt. Yet another opinion signed by George W. Bush-appointed Judge Keith Starrett highlights just how much of an extreme outlier Vinson is — and how wrong it was for so many observers to overreact to Vinson’s tea partying opinion.
The Constitution requires a plaintiff to show that they will actually be injured by a law before they can challenge it in court, a requirement known as “standing.” Judge Starrett concluded that the plaintiffs in this suit did not demonstrate that the act’s minimum coverage provision — which requires most uninsured Americans to pay slightly more income taxes — would actually cause them to pay more taxes when the law goes into effect in 2014:
Plaintiffs’ First Amended Petition contains insufficient allegations to establish that they will certainly be “applicable individuals” who must comply with the minimum coverage provision.
For example, Plaintiffs did not allege any facts which, if true, would certainly establish that they would not be subject to the provision’s religious exemptions. Plaintiffs simply alleged that they will be subject to the minimum essential coverage provision – a bare legal conclusion which the Court may not accept as true.
Furthermore, it is not certain from Plaintiffs’ allegations that, in the event they were considered “applicable individuals,” they would incur the tax penalty for non-compliance. Their First Amended Petition contains insufficient allegations to establish that they will not be subject to one of the exemptions to the penalty.
For all of the reasons stated above, the Court finds that the ten primary Plaintiffs have not plead sufficient facts to establish that they have standing to challenge the Constitutionality of the minimum essential coverage provision of the PPACA.
In tossing out this lawsuit, Starrett joins the overwhelming majority of judges who have heard health care challenges. At least 14 lawsuits have been tossed on procedural grounds such as standing; only four judges have reached the merits of an Affordable Care Act challenge, and two of those suits upheld the law.
It’s worth noting, as well, that the absence-of-standing argument is likely to resonate with conservatives on the Supreme Court. The most important decision limiting access to federal courts under the standing doctrine — Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife — was written by Justice Scalia and litigated by Chief Justice Roberts. If just one of the conservative justices decide that the anti-health reform plaintiffs lack standing, they will provide the fifth vote necessary to prevent the Act from being struck down until after the minimum coverage provision goes into effect in 2014
And if they do force the health care challengers to start over again in 2014, that will mean the issue will not reach the justices again until after the Act has been fully operational for at least a year. By that point, 32 million Americans will have received health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. It is exceedingly unlikely that the justices will test their own legitimacy by trying to take that insurance away.
UPDATE It's worth noting that Judge Starett gave the plaintiffs 30 days to fix their complaint to explain how they are presently being harmed by the minimum coverage provision, so this case could rise from the grave if they succeed in doing that.