How Will Supreme Court Rule On Health Care Law?

February 1, 2011

Nina Totenberg

This week, for the second time, a federal judge has struck down part or all of the health care law enacted by Congress last year. But legal experts caution against drawing any conclusions from these decisions.

In December, Federal District Court Judge Henry Hudson in Virginia struck down the section of the law requiring citizens to buy health care coverage or pay a penalty. This week, Federal District Court Judge Roger Vinson in Florida invalidated the entire law. However, two other federal judges have upheld the law.

History indicates that early court decisions are hardly predictive.

When the question of school segregation went to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1950s, federal judges in each of the five cases before the court had ruled that segregating the races in school was constitutional. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed.

More recently, the record was equally unpredictive for challengers to Bush administration measures in the war on terrorism. Civil liberties advocates celebrated a large number of early victories, only to see them evaporate like the morning mist as the cases worked their way up the judicial food chain.

Among the many early rulings later reversed were these: district courts ordered the Bush administration to disclose the names of prisoners detained without charge in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, those held as material witnesses, and those held for investigation. But those rulings were all overturned on appeal.

Over the course of more than a decade, a federal district court judge and an appeals court repeatedly ruled unconstitutional a federal law that made it a crime to train members of a terrorist organization in how to resolve their disputes peacefully at the United Nations. But last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned those decisions and upheld the law.

In another series of challenges to Bush administration policy, those seized as material witnesses after the Sept. 11 attacks contended that the material witness statute was being used unconstitutionally to detain them without charge, rather than to ensure their presence at trial. Three district courts split on the issue, but a federal appeals court in New York unanimously upheld the detention of even potential witnesses.

Federal judges at various points struck down a variety of provisions in the Patriot Act; one judge struck down the warrantless surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. But in all these cases, appellate courts overturned or severely modified those decisions. Even the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, set up with the explicit purpose of reviewing requests for government wiretaps, was overturned for the first time ever when it ruled against the government.

The Bush administration did lose four important cases in the Supreme Court. All but one involved the rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay — rights that the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., had declared largely nonexistent. The Supreme Court reversed, declaring that the detainees do have the right to challenge their detentions in court and declaring unconstitutional the military tribunals that the Bush administration had set up.

Now it is the Obama administration's turn to defend a major initiative, and legal scholars of all political stripes caution against drawing too many conclusions.

"I don't think you can put too much faith in early rulings, especially in cases where, like this one, the political stakes are so high," said Deborah Pearlstein, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

University of Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett agrees, but adds that early rulings do signal that arguments that once might have been dismissed should be taken seriously.

"If an argument wins in the district court level, that, to me, signals that at the very least it's plausible," he said. "And plausible arguments need to be engaged."

In short, assume nothing, at least until the U.S. Supreme Court rules. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.