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Health care case denied; no grants (FINAL UPDATE 11:38 am)

FINAL UPDATE 11:38 a.m.

The Supreme Court on Monday turned aside the first attempt to pursue in the Court a constitutional challenge to the new federal health care law. The initial test sought to draw the Justices into the nationwide controversy over the law, before any federal appeals court has ruled on it.  The Court’s order denying review of Baldwin v. Sebelius (10-369) indicated that there were no dissents and no recusals.  That was at least a preliminary indication that, when the issue does reach the Court, Justice Elena Kagan, a former Obama Administration official, would take part.  The Court granted no new cases.

In a summary decision, without noted dissent, the Court reminded lower federal courts that they may not rule in favor of a state prisoner’s habeas challenge unless they explicitly find a violation of federal law — either the Constitution or a federal statute.  Ruling in an unsigned, seven-page opinion in Wilson v. Corcoran (10-91), the Court overturned a Seventh Circuit Court ruling that appeared to have been based on a flaw under Indiana state law in the death sentence of an Ohio inmate, Joseph Corcoran, for the murders of four men.  While Corcoran’s lawyers had claimed that the state law violation also violated the federal Constitution, the Supreme Court said, the Circuit Court did not itself rule that way.

The Baldwin case on the new health legislation was an attempt to raise two questions: whether the new requirement that everyone have medical insurance by 2014 could be challenged now, and whether that insurance-purchase mandate was beyond Congress’s power under the Constitution.  A federal judge in San Diego ruled that neither an individual nor an employer could show at this point that they would actually suffer any injury from the law, so they lacked “standing” to sue.  District Judge Dana M. Sabraw dismissed the case.

Steve Baldwin, a former California state legislator and an advocate of limited government, and the Pacific Legal Institute challenged Judge Sabraw’s decision both in the Ninth Circuit (where the case remains pending) and in a petition to the Supreme Court, asking the Justices to rule without waiting for the Circuit Court.  They argued that the Justices should step in now because federal District judges have reached conflicting rulings on whether lawsuits against the law are premature, or can go forward.

The Supreme Court’s reaction to the petition had been watched closely, not because it was likely to be granted (the Court seldom hears cases to rule on conflicting rulings in federal District Courts) but as an early indicator of whether Justice Kagan would participate.  As the former U.S. Solicitor General, she has regularly taken herself out of cases on which she had played any role in that position.  Her failure to step out of the Baldwin case seemed to indicate that she had had no part in the government’s defense of the new law in lower courts.  (The Baldwin petition is discussed at length in this prior post.  The Administration waived its right to respond to the petition, and the Court did not ask for a response — usually an indication that a case will be denied review.)

In another order, the Court refused to hear an appeal by the National Football League growing out of a dispute over testing of pro football players for using a banned substance in a diet supplement they have taken.  The issue in NFL v. Williams, et al. (09-1380) was whether an employee’s case in federal court raising state law issues must be tried only under federal law because they implicate the terms of a labor contract.  Federal appeals courts are divided on that question.

The Court also denied review — for the fifth time — of a dispute over custody of a child born to a lesbian couple who were united in a civil union in Vermont, but later split up.  The specific issue that the biological mother of the child sought to raise this time in Miller v. Jenkins (10-177) was whether Congress has the constitutional authority to require one state to enforce the child custody orders of another state, when it involves a civil union that is recognized only in one of the states.  The biological mother of the child, now eight years old, and the child have since disappeared.  In a ruling last month, not at issue in the case denied review on Monday, the Vermont Supreme Court has transferred custody to the former lesbian partner because the biological mother refused to allow visitation to the child.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Health care case denied; no grants (FINAL UPDATE 11:38 am), SCOTUSblog (Nov. 8, 2010, 11:09 AM),