Guest Commentary

R. Ben Sperry, Washington Legal Foundation Fellow & law student, George Mason University School of Law

Earlier this week, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued its ruling in Virginia v. Sebelius, rejecting the federal government’s motion to dismiss.  The verdict was a victory for WLF in the first of many skirmishes that will occur in the battle over healthcare legislation.  The ruling is especially interesting owing to its analysis of the commerce clause and standing issues.

The federal government had moved to dismiss the case pursuant to 12(b)(6) on the grounds that the law was settled on the issue and such a frivolous case could not possibly win in court.  After all, the federal government has claimed, and the federal courts have validated, enormous regulatory power under the Commerce Clause.  But Judge Hudson disagreed, stating,

The congressional enactment under review – the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision – literally forges new ground and extends Commerce Clause powers beyond its current high watermark.  Counsel for both sides have thoroughly mined relevant case law and offered well reasoned analyses.  The result, however, has been insightful and illuminating, but short of definitive.  While this Court’s decision may set the initial judicial course of this case, it will certainly not be the final word.

The federal government also challenged Virginia’s standing to sue.  Normally, states do not have standing to challenge federal law, only individuals do.  In this case, however, Virginia challenged what they believed to be an unconstitutional federal law that would squarely interfere with the state’s right to enforce its own health care law.  Earlier this year, Virginia passed a statute, titled the Virginia Health Care Freedom Act, which directly contradicts the individual mandate portion of the federal health care reform law.  The court determined that a state Attorney General may represent the state’s interest in federal court if federal law impinges on a state’s sovereign interest in “the exercise of sovereign power over individuals and entities in the relevant jurisdiction [, which] involves the power to create and enforce a legal code.”  Because Virginia has such an interest manifest in its Health Care Freedom Act, it had standing in the case.

The fight against health care reform will continue.  A future court must determine whether Congress has the power to regulate and tax a citizen’s decision not to participate in interstate commerce.