The Obama Administration enthusiastically embraced a legal victory yesterday when, in a 2-1 split decision, a federal appeals court panel upheld a lower federal court decision finding that the federal Health Reform Law is constitutional. Some observers quickly seized on the fact that one of the two votes upholding the Health Reform Law was a conservative Republican judge, Jeffrey Sutton, who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The third judge, a Reagan appointee, dissented on the substantive issue, arguing that the Health Reform Law is unconstitutional.
The core question remains an extremely close one. The three judges on the panel were not unanimous and the opinion itself gives some further indications that the matter could go either way when it is finally decided by the Supreme Court. For example, Judge Sutton, who concurred in part and wrote the majority opinion in part, indicated that his opinion is just one step in the process – at one point he essentially refers to the appeals court as a “middle management judge” and then later goes on to observe that he is “[m]indful that we at the court of appeals are not just fallible but utterly non-final in this case…”
Whether today's decision has any ultimate impact will turn on its persuasive power and, in particular, whether the logic of the opinion is deemed compelling by the Supreme Court of the United States. Even before this case approaches the high court, several additional steps will occur. First, the challengers could request the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to re-hear the case en banc, although information posted on the lead challenger’s website indicates that this option will not be pursued and that the challengers prefer that the case proceed directly to the Supreme Court. In any event, the Sixth Circuit decision is just the first of the three appellate court reviews; two other federal appeals courts are currently considering similar challenges to the Health Reform Law. In contrast to the Sixth Circuit’s decision in which the lower court had already found the Health Reform Law to be constitutional, the other two circuits, the Fourth and the Eleventh, would have to reverse lower courts that have previously rejected the Health Reform Law as being unconstitutional. If either of those circuit courts decides the opposite way of today’s decision, the odds will increase that the Supreme Court will take up the matter more quickly. If the high court takes the case this fall, it could decide the constitutionality of health care reform just months before the 2012 election.