A federal trial judge in Washington, D.C., refused on Monday to allow the Obama administration to pursue an immediate appeal testing the House of Representatives’ right to sue in a dispute over federal spending under the new health care law.
The three-page decision by U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer appears to mean that she will now move ahead toward a decision on whether that spending — now running about $250 million a month — is unconstitutional. If the new schedule she set is followed, that would mean a ruling would come in the midst of presidential primary elections next year, again making health care a campaign issue.
The House contends that the Treasury has already paid out billions of dollars to insurance companies to help offset subsidies that those firms provide to lower-income people to enable them to afford health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
The House’s main argument is that Congress has not given its permission to spend any of that money under the ACA, and thus those outlays violate the Constitution’s specific provision that the Treasury cannot spend even one dollar of federal funds without advance approval by Congress. The administration insists that Congress has authorized the spending.
Although repeated attempts by the Republican-controlled House to repeal all of the ACA have failed, the lawsuit filed in Judge Collyer’s court by that chamber has succeeded very well so far, and ultimately may pose a major threat to the ACA’s functioning.
While the Obama administration has been trying since January to have the case dismissed, arguing that the House has no right to bring the political fight into court, the judge ruled in September that the House had the right to sue (“standing,” in the Article III sense) to pursue its main claim, in order to defend its constitutional power over spending.
Last month, the administration asked the judge to approve an immediate appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, solely on the issue of the House’s standing to sue. The judge’s September ruling has seriously upset the Constitution’s separation of powers and has thrust the federal courts into the midst of a political fight between the other two branches of government, the administration’s lawyers have asserted.
The case should go up on an appeal now, rather than wait until the trial judge decides for or against the House’s constitutional claim, the government has contended. A ruling by her deciding the constitutional question, the federal lawyers have added, threatens to invite a host of lawsuits by one or both houses of Congress whenever they get into a dispute with the Executive Branch over how a federal law is implemented.
The House has countered that the case is close to being ready for final briefing on the merits, and that an appeal at this stage will only prolong the court case unduly. The judge’s ruling on the House’s right to sue, the House’s lawyers have contended, simply follows other recent precedents giving lawmakers some access to the courts with their legal grievances.
Judge Collyer, in her ruling Monday against an immediate appeal, agreed with the government that she broke new legal ground on the “standing” issue, and that there is a reasonable basis for disagreement about that. If that were all that mattered, she indicated, she might have allowed an immediate appeal by the government to the D.C. Circuit.
However, on a separate point, she concluded that an immediate appeal would not move the case along faster than having the judge move on to the merits ruling herself. She indicated she could decide the case before an appeal allowed now would be likely to be decided.
She ordered a briefing schedule on the House’s constitutional argument against the spending, with the final briefs to be handed in by January 18. The case would proceed, she said, on dueling motions for a ruling without a full trial that would draw in witnesses and exhibits.
That approach, the judge said, would save months and maybe even years of pre-trial maneuvering over the facts. The case is, instead, suited to a summary ruling because, she said, the facts are not in dispute.
With briefing finished by mid-January, Judge Collyer said, she would then schedule a hearing on the merits. That would likely mean no final ruling would appear until at least several weeks after that hearing. The presidential election campaign would then be in full swing.