RICHMOND, Va. - A federal appeals court in Virginia dismissed two lawsuits Thursday that had claimed President Barack Obama's health care overhaul was unconstitutional, though it remains likely the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually decide whether the government can force individuals to buy insurance.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited technicalities in both decisions and did not rule on the constitutional issues raised by the lawsuits.
Two of the judges on the Virginia panel were appointed by Obama, the other by Bill Clinton.
The Richmond-based appeals court is the third appellate court to rule in lawsuits challenging the health care reform law, which requires individuals to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. A federal appeals court in Cincinnati upheld the law, while an appeals court in Atlanta struck down the insurance mandate.
More than 30 lawsuits have been filed across the country.
The judges ruled 3-0 that Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli did not have legal standing to file his lawsuit. Cuccinelli had argued that the federal law conflicts with a state law that says no Virginian can be forced to buy insurance.
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote that the only apparent function of the state law was "to declare Virginia's opposition to a federal insurance mandate."
Motz wrote that under Virginia's theory, a state could acquire standing to challenge any federal law just by enacting a state law. For example, a state could pass a law essentially opting out of Social Security.
"Thus, if we were to adopt Virginia's standing theory, each state could become a roving constitutional watchdog of sorts; no issue, no matter how generalized or quintessentially political, would fall beyond a state's power to litigate in federal court," she wrote.
Cuccinelli said in a written statement that he would appeal the ruling.
"Our disappointment not only stems from the fact that the court ruled against us, but also that the court did not even reach the merits on the key question of Virginia's lawsuit whether Congress has a power never before recognized in American history: the power to force one citizen to purchase a good or service from another citizen," Cuccinelli said.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
In the Liberty case, the court ruled 2-1 that the appeals court did not have jurisdiction to rule on the case because federal law prohibits challenging a tax before it is collected.
Judge Andre Davis dissented in the Liberty case, writing that he believed the court did have jurisdiction. Furthermore, Davis wrote that if the court had ruled on the constitutional issue, he would hold that the health care reform law is a constitutional exercise of congressional power under the Commerce Clause.
"We believe that this decision is clearly wrong," said Liberty attorney Mat Staver. "It goes against every other court decision in the country and it goes against even the interpretation of the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the law."