The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has just dismissed a lawsuit brought against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. You can read the full opinion on the court’s web site (PDF link). The court ruled that the plaintiff, the Commonwealth of Virginia, had no standing to challenge the law, and so dismissed the lawsuit.
For a super short summary of standing, imagine me suing Michael Jackson’s doctor for malpractice; that lawsuit would be swiftly dismissed for lack of standing. Standing is a judicial concept meaning something like ‘plaintiff has suffered or will imminently suffer an injury caused by the defendant, over something a court can redress.” So while I might be sad that the King of Pop is dead, I’m not really injured in the kind of way his family and employers are; even if sadness were an injury (it’s not), the court can’t really do anything about it. Without standing, the lawsuit is dismissed.
Some news outlets are reporting this as big news, but it’s really rather inconsequential. Two of the circuits have already split on the issue of the Constitutionality of the PPACA, so the Supreme Court is almost certain to resolve the discrepancy.
How does a discrepancy arrive in the interpretation of federal law, you ask? Why, Dear Reader, I’m so glad you did. There are 11 subdivisions of the federal court system, called circuits. They’re laid out this way for historical reasons that make their boundaries look pretty random today. You can also tell that when they were drawing up the 9th Circuit, there probably weren’t a lot of folks in California yet, because that circuit is huge. Each of these circuits has its own districts courts and courts of appeals, and judicial precedent from one of the circuits doesn’t bind the other.
When the circuits have all agreed about an interpretation of a federal law, the Supreme Court won’t necessarily weigh in. But when there’s a disagreement, the Supreme Court usually steps in to ensure uniform application of federal law. Given the ambitious size and scale of the PPACA, I can’t imagine the Supreme Court would decline to hear the case.