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Court takes a pass on health care

Choosing, for now, to remain on the sidelines of the national constitutional debate over the new health care law, the Supreme Court refused on Monday to put Virginia’s challenge to the law on a fast track with review by the Justices ahead of any appeals court decisions.  There were no dissents noted, and there was no comment. The Court granted no new cases.  (The full Order List is here.)

The legal side of the health care controversy will now revert to six federal courts of appeals where challenges are unfolding; the first hearing in one of those cases will be May 10 at the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, Va.

The Court took no action Monday on the one remaining Guantanamo detainee case on its docket, Khadr, et al., v. Obama, et al. (10-751).  The core issue in that case — the last of eight that were on the Court’s docket this Term — is whether federal judges have any power to block the transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo, putting them beyond a U.S. court’s reach.  The case also seeks to test whether Guantanamo prisoners have a constitutional right to challenge the government’s claim that they will not face torture if sent to a country where the individual fears such harm.

The Court’s denial of review in Virginia v. Sebelius (10-1014) was entirely expected.  The Justices have the authority to take a case for review before any federal appeals court rules, but they seldom do so.  But another factor that may have figured in Monday’s action was that it is late in the current Term so the case could only be reviewed promptly by setting up an unusually fast briefing and argument schedule, and, if that were not done, the case would go over to the new Term starting in October, anyway.   One or more of the cases now under review in the federal appeals courts is expected to reach the Court in the new Term.  It is widely assumed that, when that happens, the Court will step in.

From the brief order issued Monday, it appeared that all nine Justices had taken part at least in considering Virginia’s “petition before judgment.”  Justice Elena Kagan, a former U.S. Solicitor General, thus did not stay out of the case, as some critics of the Obama Administration and the health care law had suggested that she should.  Justices ordinarily do not explain why they do or do not recuse from a case.

Virginia’s challenge is still pending in the Fourth Circuit, along with a government appeal and a separate appeal by Liberty University.  Those three cases, to be heard in two back-to-back arguments, result from conflicting rulings by two federal judges in Virginia.  One of those judges struck down the new law’s mandate that virtually every one in the nation must have health insurance by the year 2014, and the other judge upheld that provision — a central feature of the new law.

The new law is also under review currently in the Third, Sixth, Ninth, Eleventh and D.C. Circuit Courts.  The broadest District Court decision under review is a Florida federal judge’s ruling that struck down the entire law.  Because the insurance mandate is so critical to the entire law, Senior District Judge Roger Vinson of Pensacola said none of the law could survive without it.   That decision, however, has been temporarily blocked, so the Obama Administration is continuing to enforce all parts of the new law.  Judge Vinson’s decision is before the Eleventh Circuit based in Atlanta.

Besides turning aside Virginia’s plea on health care, the Justices denied another potentially significant case, Jones v. Keller (10-804).  The issue in that case was whether, in a state that awards prison inmates credits that could lead to a reduction of their time in prison, the state may constitutionally adopt a policy against awarding any such credits to an inmate who receives a life sentence.  The appeal affects some 145 prisoners in North Carolina.   All are routinely denied any credits for good conduct or for extra work, under the state’s policy for those sentenced to life.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court takes a pass on health care, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 25, 2011, 9:05 AM),