The latest legal salvo in the judicial fight over the health care reform law was fired Monday when lawyers from Liberty University filed their appeal blasting a Virginia judge's ruling upholding the law and filed just a couple of weeks before another federal judge from Virginia said President Obama's hallmark legislation is unconstitutional.
Echoing the concerns expressed in a couple of dozen lawsuits across the country, Liberty's challenge argues the individual mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act violates the Constitution's Commerce Clause that regulates economic activity between the states.
"The irresolvable dilemmas posed by the individual and employer mandates coupled with the unprecedented expansion of the Commerce Clause to forcibly reverse personal decisions to not participate in commerce create real and substantial threats not only to Plaintiffs' constitutional rights, but to the liberty of all Americans," Mathew D. Staver, Dean of Liberty University School of Law, wrote in his brief to the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Monday's filing puts the Liberty University case ahead of the other lawsuit working its way to the Fourth Circuit. That case drew national headlines in December when Judge Henry Hudson said the Obama administration and Congress had gone beyond the bounds of the Constitution with its health care reform effort.
Even though the Justice Department has yet to file the necessary paperwork with the Fourth Circuit, it is expected to appeal Hudson's ruling.
On November 30, Judge Norman Moon reached a different conclusion in the Liberty University challenge. "I hold that there is a rational basis for Congress to conclude that individuals' decisions about how and when to pay for health care are activities that in the aggregate substantially affect the interstate health care market."
In the wake of Judge Hudson's decision, White House Press Secretary was pressed about its significance and repeatedly made note of Judge Moon's earlier ruling. "This was the eastern district of Virginia. 115 miles away, the western district court of Virginia ruled November 30th to uphold the same provision that the eastern district and its judge had ruled against."
In its appeal with the Fourth Circuit, Liberty University said Judge Moon signed-off on an unprecedented power grab by the federal government. "The district court reached far beyond the outermost boundary of the Supreme Court's Commerce Clause precedents and crafted an expansive definition of congressional power that, if permitted to stand, will create an unconstitutional national police power that would threaten all aspects of American life."
Liberty's appeal covers much more ground than the case Judge Hudson decided and was brought by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. While each argues the law's individual mandate is unjust, Liberty also says employers are unfairly burdened by the measure and that its exemptions for people with religious objections violate the First and Fifth Amendments.
"The Act requires Liberty to have in place no later than January 1, 2014 health insurance plans that offer what the government will define as 'minimum essential coverage,' regardless of whether such coverage provides health care services that are necessary or desirable for Liberty's employees, affordable for Liberty or its employees or compatible with Liberty and its employees' Christian values," Dean Staver wrote. He added that if the law, scheduled to take full effect in 2014, is implemented, the school will face "significant financial hardship from having to either adjust its health care benefits or pay penalties."
The government's response to Liberty's appeal is due in the Fourth Circuit in one month.
In another closely watched case, a federal judge in Florida is soon expected to rule on a challenge brought by that state and joined by nearly two dozen others.