The Supreme Court of the United States received a new request today that it consider the question of whether the “individual mandate” under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the PPACA) is constitutional or not. The petition of certiorari was filed by the Thomas More Law Center, one of several plaintiffs challenging the PPACA on constitutional grounds in various litigation now working through the federal courts. The filing today requesting Supreme Court review took less than a month after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a 2-1 decision that rejected the Thomas More Law Center’s challenge to the PPACA and declared that the individual mandate was constitutional. After losing the Sixth Circuit decision before the three-judge panel, the Thomas More Law Center could have made a request that the Sixth Circuit rehear the case en banc, meaning that all of the Sixth Circuit judges (as many as 26 judges, depending on factors such as current vacancies) would rehear the case and issue a decision. En banc hearings are somewhat rare and are usually reserved for especially complex cases or ones of considerable public importance.

The July 27, 2011 filing is not the first time one of the litigants challenging the PPACA has requested that the Supreme Court take up the matter. In April of this year, the Supreme Court refused a request from the State of Virginia that its challenge to the individual mandate and the PPACA be heard by the high court on an accelerated basis. Virginia’s request was different in an important respect from the July 27 petition by the Thomas More Law Center because Virginia sought to leap frog the intermediate step of going before a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, preferring instead to ask for the extraordinary step of immediately proceeding to the Supreme Court. Accordingly, Virginia’s request represented a departure from the normal course of review and at the time no one was surprised that the Supreme Court preferred that the Virginia matter first be heard by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.   It is also worth noting that Virginia’s request was different from the July 27 request by the Thomas More Legal Center in the sense that Virginia won in its original petition (at least in large part) because the original federal district court had sided with Virginia in its position that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, whereas the Thomas More Law Center has now lost before a federal district court and the Sixth Circuit. 

Throughout the legal battle, the Obama Administration has taken the position that the legal process should play out methodically and go through the appropriate stages of appeal. This may be a political preference and a legal strategy that the Administration views as beneficial to it. Regardless, the Supreme Court itself has a strong, historical preference that, absent extraordinary urgency, it only consider matters after a complete review has taken place in applicable lower courts. 

It is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court will consider taking up the challenges to the PPACA until both the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals have rendered decisions on the PPACA cases currently before them. As we have stated previously, if either of those circuit courts strike down the individual mandate or, possibly even the PPACA entirely, that would establish a circuit split given that the Sixth Circuit ruled in support of the individual mandate. And if there is a circuit split after decisions are rendered in the other pending cases, it is likely that the Supreme Court will take up the matter more quickly.  In that event, if the high court takes the case this fall, it will likely decide the constitutionality of health care reform just months before the 2012 election.