Top-court pass on reform suit probably means fall hearing

Lower courts must rule first on pending challenges, possibly delaying a Supreme Court decision until the 2012 presidential election cycle.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted April 29, 2011

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The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a request by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to expedite review of his state's lawsuit against the health system reform law.

The move means that lower courts will need to rule first on pending challenges to the law before the high court will take up the cases. A spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is spearheading a parallel, multistate lawsuit against the law, said her office anticipates the question will come before the Supreme Court by the fall. That could mean a final decision on the matter could come during the 2012 presidential election cycle. The justices may decide to consolidate several pending lawsuits when considering the challenges.

For the Virginia case, Cuccinelli filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Feb. 8, arguing for a prompt resolution to the state's complaint. He is one of several state attorneys general challenging the law's constitutionality and arguing against its implementation.

In its court order list issued April 25, the high court declined to examine the case before the lawsuit goes through the usual judicial route. Appeals generally are heard first at the federal appellate level. However, the Supreme Court can agree to hear a case early if it's proven to be of extreme public importance. Legal experts said justices rarely hear a case before the appeals courts have weighed in.

In a statement, Cuccinelli said asking the high court to expedite the suit was intended to remove the "crippling and costly uncertainty" of the law as quickly as possible.

"The Supreme Court rarely expedites cases. ... Expediting our case would have been the exception and so, although disappointing, this is not surprising," he said.

Federal judges in Virginia and several other states have issued conflicting rulings on whether the reform law -- particularly its requirement that people obtain health insurance or pay a penalty -- violates the U.S. Constitution. In one high-profile decision in January on the multistate lawsuit against the law, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson in Pensacola, Fla., ruled the law was unconstitutional.

In Cuccinelli's case, a district judge in December 2010 struck down the individual mandate portion of the law. The judge did not invalidate the entire law or prevent it from going into effect, which Cuccinelli had sought. The Justice Dept. appealed the ruling.

Two other judges have upheld the law's insurance mandate as constitutional, and 14 similar challenges have been dismissed. The majority of those cases also are being appealed.

In the likely next steps for the health reform litigation, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments May 10 on a health reform challenge by Liberty University in Virginia. In December 2010, the university's lawsuit against the individual insurance mandate was dismissed by a federal judge in Lynchburg, Va., but the school appealed the ruling.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the appeal of Vinson's ruling on June 8.

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