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Virginia ex rel Cuccinelli v. Sebelius, No. 11-1057

Decided Sept. 8, 2011

When President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Act”), also known as “Obamacare,” into law, the state of Virginia responded by passing the Virginia Health Care Freedom Act (“VHCFA”) stating that, with exceptions, no resident of Virginia would be required to maintain individual health insurance. Though the contested portion of the federal Act, the so-called “individual mandate,” only applied to persons and did not directly affect the state of Virginia, Attorney General Cuccinelli argued the state nonetheless had standing to sue based on the incongruity between state and federal laws, arguing that the Act infringed on Virginia’s sovereign power. The district court agreed, finding standing and declaring the individual mandate unconstitutional.

The Fourth Circuit vacated without reaching the merits of the Act itself because it held that Virginia did not have standing to challenge the law. In order to demonstrate standing, a party must show “(1) it has ‘suffered an injury in fact’; (2) there exists a ‘causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of’; and (3) a favorable judicial ruling will ‘likely’ redress that injury.” Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992). The court held that Virginia suffered no injury because the VHCFA was not an exercise of sovereign power, only a declaration serving as an attempt to immunize its citizens from what it viewed as an unfavorable federal law. Adopting Virginia’s view of standing, the court noted, would allow states to sue the federal government anytime a disagreeable law is passed merely by passing its own contrary state law. As such, the case was vacated with instructions for the district court to dismiss for lack of standing.

Full Opinion

-C. Alexander Cable