Va. ex rel. Cuccinelli v. Sebelius

Decision Date13 December 2010
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 3:10CV188-HEH
Citation728 F.Supp.2d 768,106 A.F.T.R.2d 2010
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia
PartiesCommonwealth of VIRGINIA ex rel. Kenneth T. CUCCINELLI, II, in his official capacity as Attorney General of Virginia, Plaintiff, v. Kathleen SEBELIUS, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, in her official capacity, Defendant.

Earle Duncan Getchell, Jr., Charles E. James, Jr., Stephen R. McCullough, Wesley Glenn Russell, Jr., Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, VA, for Plaintiff.

Jonathan Holland Hambrick, Office of the U.S. Attorney, Richmond, VA, Erika Myers, Ian Gershengorn, Joel McElvain, Department of Justice Federal Programs Branch, Sheila M. Lieber, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

(Cross Motions for Summary Judgment)

HENRY E. HUDSON, District Judge.

In this case, the Commonwealth of Virginia (the "Commonwealth"), through its Attorney General, challenges the constitutionality of the pivotal enforcement mechanism of the health care scheme adopted by Congress in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("ACA" or "the Act"), Pub. L. No. 111-148, 124 Stat. 119 (2010). At issue is Section 1501 of the Act, commonly known as the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision ("the Provision"). The Minimum Essential Coverage Provision requires that every United States citizen, other than those falling within specified exceptions, maintain a minimum level of health insurance coverage for each month beginning in 2014. Failure to comply will result in a penalty included with the taxpayer's annual return. As enacted, Section 1501 is administered and enforced as a part of the Internal Revenue Code.

In its Complaint, the Commonwealth seeks both declaratory and injunctive relief. Specifically, the Commonwealth urges the Court to find that the enactment of Section 1501 exceeds the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause and General Welfare Clause of the United States Constitution. Alternatively, the Commonwealth contends that the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision is in direct conflict with Virginia Code Section 38.2-3430.1:1 (2010), commonly referred to as the Virginia Health Care Freedom Act, thus implicating the Tenth Amendment.

As part of the relief sought, the Commonwealth also requests prohibitory injunctive relief barring the United States government from enforcing the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision within its territorial boundaries.

The case is presently before the Court on Motions for Summary Judgment filed by both parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Both sides have again filed well-researched memoranda supplying the Court with a thorough analysis of the controlling issues and pertinent jurisprudence. The Court heard oral argument on October 18, 2010. As this Court previously cautioned, this case does not turn on the wisdom of Congress or the public policy implications of the ACA. The Court's attention is focused solely on the constitutionality of the enactment.

A review of the supporting memoranda filed by each party yields no material facts genuinely in issue and neither party suggests to the contrary. The dispute at hand is driven entirely by issues of law.1

The present procedural posture of this case is best summarized by the penultimate paragraph of this Court's Memorandum Opinion denying the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss:

While this case raises a host of complex constitutional issues, all seem to distill to the single question of whether or not Congress has the power to regulate-and tax-a citizen's decision not to participate in interstate commerce. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor any circuit court of appeals has squarely addressed this issue. No reported case from any federal appellate court has extended the Commerce Clause or Tax Clause to include the regulation of a person's decision not to purchase a product, notwithstanding its effect on interstate commerce.

(Mem. Op. 2, Aug. 2, 2010, ECF No. 84, 702 F.Supp.2d 598.)

I.

The Secretary, in her Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, aptly sets the framework of the debate: "[t]his case concerns a pure question of law, whether Congress acted within its Article I powers in enacting the ACA." (Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 17, ECF No. 91.) At this final stage of the proceedings, with some refinement, the issues remain the same.

Succinctly stated, the Commonwealth's constitutional challenge has three distinct facets. First, the Commonwealth contends that the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision, and affiliated penalty, are beyond the outer limits of the Commerce Clause and associated Necessary and Proper Clause as measured by U.S. Supreme Court precedent. More specifically, the Commonwealth argues that requiringan otherwise unwilling individual to purchase a good or service from a private vendor is beyond the boundaries of congressional Commerce Clause power. The Commonwealth maintains that the failure, or refusal, of its citizens to elect to purchase health insurance is not economic activity historically subject to federal regulation under the Commerce Clause.

Alternatively, the Commonwealth contends that the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision cannot be sustained as a legitimate exercise of the congressional power of taxation under the General Welfare Clause. It argues that the Provision is mischaracterized as a tax and is, in actuality, a penalty untethered to an enumerated power. Congress may not, in the Commonwealth's view, exercise such power to impose a penalty for what amounts to passive inactivity.

Lastly, the Commonwealth asserts that Section 1501 is in direct conflict with the Virginia Health Care Freedom Act. Its Attorney General argues that the enactment of the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision is an unlawful exercise of police power, encroaches on the sovereignty of the Commonwealth, and offends the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Secretary prefaces her response with an acknowledgement that the debate over the constitutionality of the ACA has evolved into a polemic mix of political controversy and legal analysis. When viewed from a purely legal perspective, the Secretary maintains that the requirement that most Americans obtain a minimum level of health insurance coverage or pay a tax penalty "is well within the traditional bounds of Congress's Article I powers." (Def.'s Mem. Supp. 1.) Her argument begins with an explanation of the reformative impact of the health care regime created by the Act. "[T]he Act is an important, but incremental, advance that builds on prior reforms of the interstate health insurance market over the last 35 years." (Def.'s Mem. Supp. 1.) The Secretary points to congressional findings that the insurance industry has failed to take corrective action to eliminate barriers which prevent millions of Americans from obtaining affordable insurance. To correct this systemic failure in the interstate health insurance market, Congress adopted a carefully crafted scheme which bars insurers from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions, and from charging discriminatory premiums on the basis of medical history.

In order to guarantee the success of these reforms, the Secretary maintains that Congress properly exercised its powers under the Commerce Clause, or alternatively the Necessary and Proper Clause, to adopt a regulatory mechanism to effectuate these health care market reform measures, namely the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision. "[B]ecause the Act regulates health care financing [it] is quintessential economic activity." (Def.'s Reply Mem. 3, ECF No. 132.)

Moreover, the Secretary rejects the Commonwealth's contention that the implementation of the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision through the Necessary and Proper Clause violates state sovereignty. Since the penalty mechanism does not compel state officials to carry out a federal regulatory scheme, she maintains that it does not implicate the Tenth Amendment.

The Secretary also disputes the logic behind the Commonwealth's contention that the Provision compels health care market participation by individuals who do not wish to purchase insurance. She dismisses the notion that uninsured people can sit passively on the market sidelines. Her reasoning flows from the observation that

the large majority of the uninsured regularly migrate in and out of insurance coverage. That is, the uninsured, as a class, often make, revisit, and revise economic decisions as to how to finance their health care needs. Congress may regulate these economic actions when they substantially affect interstate commerce.... Insurance-purchase requirements have long been fixtures in the United States Code.

(Def.'s Mem. Supp. 2.)

Both the Secretary's argument in defense of the Provision and the apparent underlying rationale of Congress are premised on the facially logical assumption that every individual at some point in life will need some form of health care. "No person can guarantee that he will divorce himself entirely from the market for health care services." (Def.'s Mem. Opp. Mot. Summ. J. 1, ECF No. 96.) "[N]o person can guarantee that he will never incur a sudden, unanticipated need for expensive care; and very few persons, absent insurance, can guarantee that they will not shift the cost of that care to the rest of society." (Def.'s Reply Mem. 2.) In the Secretary's view, failure to appreciate this logic is the fatal flaw in the Commonwealth's position. 2

On a third front, the Secretary defends the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision as a valid exercise of Congress's independent authority to lay taxes and make expenditures for the general welfare. Contrary to earlier representations by the Legislative and Executive branches, the Secretary now states unequivocally that the Provision is a tax, published in the Internal Revenue Code, and enforced by the Internal Revenue Service. The Secretary...

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